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Critical Notes.—“Muster of the Tribe of Levi. As Jacob had adopted the two sons of Joseph as his own sons, and thus promoted them to the rank of heads of tribes, the tribe of Levi founded, strictly speaking, the thirteenth tribe of the whole nation, and was excepted from the muster of the twelve tribes who were destined to form the army of Jehovah, because God had chosen it for the service of the sanctuary. Out of this tribe God had not only called Moses to be the deliverer, lawgiver, and leader of His people, but Moses’ brother Aaron, with the sons of the latter, to be the custodians of the sanctuary. And now, lastly, the whole tribe was chosen, in the place of the first-born of all the tribes, to assist the priests in performing the duties of the sanctuary, and was numbered and mustered for this its special calling.”—Keil and Del.
Numbers 3:1. Generations. “The term ‘generations’ is strictly a technical word (cf. Genesis 2:4; Genesis 5:1; Genesis 6:9, etc.; Ruth 4:18). It does not point to birth and origin so much as to downward history and development.” The “generations” here are not merely the descendants of Moses and Aaron, but of the Levites generally. “Aaron is placed before Moses here” (see at Exodus 6:26 sqq.), “not merely as being the elder of the two, but because his sons received the priesthood, whilst the sons of Moses, on the contrary, were classed among the rest of the Levitical families” (cf. 1 Chronicles 23:14).
Numbers 3:3. Whom he consecrated: lit. as marg., “whose hand he filled,” by setting them apart to the office of priests.
Numbers 3:4. In the sight of Aaron, their father—i.e., during his lifetime.
AARON AND HIS SONS: PARENTS AND CHILDREN
In these verses we have—
1. An incidental illustration of the exalted personal character and the Divine mission of Moses.
Aaron was the ancestor of a regular succession of priests. But Moses seeks nothing for himself or for his descendants. He does not use his high position or his great power for the attainment of any selfish end. He “passes by his own family, or immediate descendants; he gave no rank or privilege to them during his life, and left nothing to them at his death. They became incorporated with the Levites, from or amongst whom they are never distinguished.” An illustration of the nobility of his character and the utter unselfishness of his aims. Other eminent men seek to advance the interests of their descendants; but it was not so with him. In this we have also a confirmation of the Divinity of his vocation—that he was called of God to his great enterprise. Had it been otherwise, we should have seen him aim at the gratification of avarice, or the acquisition of power, or the attainment of honours for himself and his successors. The disinterestedness of his conduct witnesses to the Divinity of his calling.
II. An intimation that the duties of the ministers of religion demand for their faithful discharge their entire consecration thereto.
It seems to us that the striking expression used in the third verse may fairly be regarded as suggesting this truth, “Whose hands he filled to minister in the priest’s office.” The apostles soon found this entire consecration of their time and powers to the work to be necessary. “We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (see Acts 6:1-4). And St. Paul, in writing to Timothy, says: “Give thyself wholly to them” (see 1 Timothy 4:13-16, and remarks on this point in our notes on ch. Numbers 1:47-54).
III. An example of wicked sons descending from a godly parent.
Aaron, though far from being so great or so holy a man as his brother, was without doubt a good man; yet Nadab, his eldest son, and Abihu, his second son, were consumed by God because of their sin. “Nadab and Abihu died before the Lord, when they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai.” Their sin was that they kindled the incense in their censers with fire not taken from that which burned perpetually on the altar, and probably that they did this while in a state of intoxication (Leviticus 10:1-11). God will be served as He pleases and directs. There is peril even in the slightest infringement of Divine directions. In sacred services the least deviations from the clearly revealed will of God are displeasing unto Him. For their sin Nadab and Abihu were devoured by “fire from the Lord.” They were degenerate and depraved sons of a pious father. Generation is not regeneration. Personal character is not hereditary as personal possessions often are. Our Lord represents one “in hell” and “in torments” as addressing Abraham as “Father,” and Abraham in reply addressing him as “Son.” The children of godly parents may at last find their own place in hell. Salvation is not transmissible. It is a personal concern. Repentance, faith, self-consecration, are acts which cannot be done by proxy. The general rule undoubtedly is that the children of pious parents, who have been well and wisely trained by them, will themselves become pious. It is also true that moral tendencies are transmissible from parent to child. Still there are exceptions to this rule. Yet we think if we knew all the particulars of the home-life and the parental training and example, we should find such exceptions to be very rare indeed. Many parents of undoubted piety fail sadly in the training of their children: some through over-severity, others by undue indulgence, etc. Did not Eli fail in this respect? (1 Samuel 3:13.) Do not the troubles which arose to Jacob by reason of the sins of his sons look like the natural retribution of his own sins, in deceiving his aged father and in wronging his brother? Were not the troubles in the later life of David, because of the wickedness of some of his sons, connected with his own sins? (2 Samuel 12:10-12.) Let pious parents take heed to themselves and to their duties. (a)
IV. An example of the widest difference of character and destiny in children of the same parents.
While Nadab and Abihu were sadly depraved and suddenly destroyed, their younger brethren Eleazar and Ithamar faithfully “ministered in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father,” and upon his death, Eleazar succeeded him as high priest. The children of the same parents frequently differ widely from each other in features, in disposition, and, as amongst the sons of Aaron, in character. The freedom of the human will to a very great extent explains this. The things which to one man are the very bread of life, another man will pervert into deadly poison. The ministry of the Divine Gospel to some is “the savour of life unto life,” to others “the savour of death unto death.” (b)
Our subject utters earnest counsels—
1. To the children of godly parents. Trust not in the character and prayers of your parents for salvation. These are of priceless value, yet they will not avail to your salvation apart from your own faith and obedience. (See Ezekiel 18:0) (c)
2. To parents. Be diligent and faithful in the discharge of your duty to your children.
(1) Let your own life be right, and so set them a good example. (d)
(2) Give them wise religious instruction and training. (e)
(3) Commend them often and earnestly to God in prayer. (f)
(4) Afford them encouragement in every manifestation of pious feeling and conduct. (g)
(a) I do not overlook the dreadful possibility, that, in the stress of temptation, and a depraved inclination, the child, even when all this has been done for him, may wander off and be a prodigal. He may viciously disown the covenant made in his behalf. He may plunge into sin, in despite of all. Then his only way back into the Church of Christ must be by conversion, as with the children of unbelievers. All I say is, that such instances ought to be prevented or diminished by wiser and more Christian notions and practices. Let the Christian parents continually speak to the young child of Church privileges, of the joy and the duty of his Christian heritage and home. Let that child have the doctrines and life of Christ faithfully instilled into his soul, by domestic instruction and family prayer. Let him be reminded of his baptismal dedication, and taught to live worthily of it. No magical, talismanic effect is thus to be wrought upon him, but a perfectly natural and simple one, standing in harmony with all other educational influences, and guaranteed also a peculiar blessing. This Christian child, like others, must have a spiritual nature and life formed upon him, in addition to his natural life. Only, this blessed boon of a new and holy heart steals in upon him gradually, by way of his parents’ eyes and voice and prayers, from the very dawn of his consciousness, grows with his growth, hardens with his muscles, expands with his understanding, and matures in him as gently and regularly as any of the growths of the forest or the field; so that there shall be no period in his remembrance, when he was not moving straight on towards a ripe Christian character, and full communion in the Church. All this I place in contrast with our strange and savage habit of turning off our little ones to feed on the busks and chaff of the senses, till some dreadful wrench of sorrow, after they have grown up, possibly wakens a few of them to conviction, and drives them back, broken-spirited, from the far country where they had wandered, to their Father’s house.—F. D. Huntington, D D.
(b) So from the heights of will
Life’s parting stream descends,
And, as a moment turns its slender rill,
Each widening torrent bends.
From the same cradle’s side,
From the same mother’s knee,
One to long darkness and the frozen tide,
One to the peaceful sea!
O. W. Holmes.
(c) The child of a very godly father, notwithstanding all the instructions given him, the good education he has had, and the needful rebukes that have been given him, and the restraints he has been laid under, after all the pains taken with him and prayers put up for him, may yet prove wicked and vile, the grief of his father, the shame of his family, and the curse and plague of his generation. This wicked man shall perish for ever in his iniquity, notwithstanding his being the son of a good father. He is his own destroyer; and his relation to a good father will be so far from standing him in stead that it will aggravate his sin and his condemnation, and will make his misery hereafter the more intolerable.—M. Henry.
(d) Truth must be lived into meaning before it can be truly known. Examples are the only sufficient commentaries; living epistles the only fit expounders of written epistles. When the truly Christian father and mother teach as being taught of God, when their prayers go into their lives, and their lives into their doctrine; when their goodness melts into the memory, and heaven, too, breathes into the associated thoughts and sentiments, to make a kind of blessed memory for also they teach, then we see the beautiful office they are in fulfilled.—H. Bushnell, D.D.
(e) There must be regular Biblical teaching. Somewhere and somehow, not by chance, not at interrupted and infrequent seasons, but patiently and humbly, and week by week, that wonderful, most ancient and Eternal Book must be opened before him. Its sublime yet simple truths, plain to the child’s understanding; its holy personages, us grand Prophets and ardent Apostles; its venerable patriarchs and its inspired children, must all pass, in their robes of light and forms of singular majesty and beauty before him. Its psalms must be sung into his soul. Its beatitudes and commandments must be fixed in his remembrance. Its parables must engage his fancy. Its miracles must awe his wonder. Its cross, and ark, and all its sacred emblems, must people his imagination. Without that Bible, no child born among us can come to Him whom only the Bible reveals.—F. D. Huntington, D.D.
(f) There must be prayer. Your child must know, he must see, he must feel, that between your parent-heart and Him who is the Infinite Father of all alike there is open and conscious communion. Till there is established, in all simplicity, this confiding and daily intercourse between the soul and Heaven, you have not received your child in the name of Christ. What was testified by one of the strong statesmen of early American history might be declared, in spirit, probably by nearly all the best men that have lived in Christendom. “I believe,” he said, “that I should have been swept away by the flood of French infidelity if it had not been for one thing—the remembrance of the time when my sainted mother used to make me kneel by her bedside, taking my little hands folded in hers, and causing me to repeat the Lord’s Prayer.”—Ibid.
(g) Piety is very commonly discouraged in children by giving them tests of character that are inappropriate to their age. The child, for example, loses his temper in some matter in which he is crossed; and the conclusion is forthwith sprung upon him that he has a bad heart, and is certainly no Christian child. It is only necessary to ask how the father, how the mother, would themselves fare tested by the same rule?… It is never to be assumed by us that they are without piety because they falter in some things. The child must be judged or tested in the same general way as the adult. If he is wholly perverse, has no spirit of duty, turns away from all religious things, it will not encourage anything good in him to tell him that he is without piety; but if he loves religious things, wants to be in them, tries after a good and obedient life, he is to be shown how tenderly God regards him, how ready He is to forgive him, and when he stumbles or falls, how kindly He will raise him up, how graciously help him to stand!—H. Bushnell, D.D.
THE DEDICATION OF THE LEVITES—CHURCH WORK AND WORKERS
These verses suggest the following observations:—
I. That the offices of the Church are Divinely instituted.
The Lord here institutes the Levitical order with its duties, the priestly order with its duties, and places both under the high priest, who also had his duties. In the Christian Church the office of the Ministry was instituted by our Lord Himself. (See Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:45-49) The deacon’s office was instituted by the inspired apostles with solemn prayer to God, and was ratified by the signal blessing of God which followed. (See Acts 6:1-8) Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, are spoken of by St. Paul as the gifts of Christ to the Church, “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” These offices are not human inventions. They are Divine in their origin, and in their authority. (a)
II. There are different ranks in the offices of the Church as instituted by God.
The Levites were given to the priests for the performance of those religious duties which were of an inferior kind. The priests ranked higher than the Levites. They were granted a nearer access to God in the Holy of holies. The high priest held the highest office in the tribe, and ranked as the head of both the priests and the Levites. With respect to the Levites this is clearly indicated in the text. Thus, in Numbers 3:6, “the expression עָמַד לִפְנֵי is frequently met with in connection with the position of a servant, as standing before his master to receive his commands.”—Keil and Del. And Fuerst: “To stand before one in a respectful, submissive, ministering position before the great, hence to serve, to wait upon. Deuteronomy 1:38; Daniel 1:5.” The ninth verse also expresses their “complete surrender” to him. We must be careful in applying this to the Christian Church; for, as Dr. Stoughton observes, “the Jewish Church was in certain respects, and those the most characteristic and striking, so utterly different from the Churches instituted by the Apostles, that a combination of the principles of the first, with the principles of the second, is simply impossible.” But in the offices of the Christian Church there are grades or ranks. Various ranks are necessary for the maintenance of the order, and the performance of the various duties of the Church. Various ranks are inevitable. While there are differences of mental capacity and spiritual power amongst the members of the Church, differences of rank there must be. Thus we find that ministers were rulers in the Churches in the Apostolic age. St. Paul writes, “We beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you,” etc. (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. And the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the Word of God.” “They ruled in the name of their Divine Master, administering His laws, not enacting any of their own.”
III. The lowliest labour in the service of God is sacred and blessed.
The Levites were to perform the most common and laborious duties. They were the servants of the priests. They had to keep guard round the tabernacle, to keep the sacred vessels pertaining to it, to remove it from place to place during their wanderings and journeyings, to prepare supplies for the sanctuary, such as incense, wine, oil, etc., and to keep all pertaining to the tabernacle clean and in order. Yet they were dedicated to this work, and taught to regard the work itself as sacred. The most menial labour in connection with the cause of God should still be regarded as sacred. Its high and holy associations and ends exalt and hallow it. “I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than,” etc. Indeed, all work which is faithfully done is sacred. Duty is ever divine and ennobling. “One thing I will remind you of,” says Mr. Carlyle, “that the essence and outcome of all religions, creeds, and liturgies whatsoever is, to do one’s work in a faithful manner. Unhappy caitiff, what to you is the use of orthodoxy, if with every stroke of your hammer you are breaking all the Ten Commandments,—operating upon Devil’s dust, and endeavouring to reap where you have not sown?” (b)
IV. God also appoints the persons to fill the various offices in His Church.
Here He appoints the tribe of Levi to the service of the tabernacle, and the sons of Aaron to the priesthood; and He called Aaron to be the high priest. “And no man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” True ministers are creations of God, not the manufacture either of university or college professors, or of consecrating bishops, or of both united. He alone is able to qualify men for the office, and He alone is competent to utter the authoritative call to it. (c)
V. Intrusion into sacred places and duties awakened the stern displeasure of the Lord.
“Aaron and his sons shall wait on their priest’s office; and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.” Any one who was not a son of Aaron, even though he were a Levite, that should draw nigh to perform any of the duties pertaining to the office of the priest was to be put to death. “Let this be thought upon by our over-bold intruders into the work of the ministry.” God will have sacred things reverently regarded, and sacred duties reverently performed.
The subject affords—
1. Encouragement to those who are called of God to Christian work. He who has called you to your work will sustain you in it, make it efficient by His blessing, and confer upon you rich rewards.
2. Admonition as to our estimate of the ministers of the Lord. They “are ambassadors for Christ.” God Himself speaks through them to men. They are called and commissioned by Jesus Christ. And He says, “He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth Me, and he that receiveth Me receiveth Him that sent Me;” “Despise not prophesyings.” “Know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.”
(a) All men cannot work in the same way: “There are diversities of operation.” Upon the face of a watch you may see an illustration of my meaning. On that small space you have three workers: there is the second-pointer performing rapid revolutions; there is the minute-pointer going at a greatly reduced speed; and there is the hour-pointer tardier still. Now any one unacquainted with the mechanism of a watch would conclude that the busy little second-pointer was doing all the work—it is clicking away at sixty times the speed of the minute-pointer; and as for the hour-hand that seems to be doing no work at all. You can see in a moment that the first is busy, and in a short time you’ll see the second stir, but you must wait still longer to assure yourself of the motion of the third. So is it in the Church. There are active, fussy men who appear to be doing the work of the whole community, and others who go at less speed, and others slower still. But can we do without the minute and the hour-pointers? The noisy second-hand might go round its little circle for ever, without telling the world the true time. We should be thankful for all kinds of workers. The silent, steady hour-hand need not envy its noisy little colleague. Each man must fill the measure of his capacity. Your business is to do your allotted work, so as to meet the approbation of the Master.—Jos. Parker, D.D.
(b) There is a perennial nobleness, and even sacredness, in work. Were he never so benighted, forgetful of his high calling, there is always hope in a man that actually and earnestly works; in idleness alone is there perpetual despair.… It has been written, “an endless significance lies in work”—as man perfects himself by writing. Foul jungles are cleared away, fair seed-fields rise instead, and stately cities; and withal, the man himself first ceases to be a jungle and foul, unwholesome desert thereby. Consider how, even in the meanest sorts of Labour, the whole soul of a man is composed into a kind of real harmony, the instant he sets himself to work! Doubt, Desire, Sorrow, Remorse, Indignation, Despair itself, all these, like hell-dogs, lie beleaguering the soul of the poor day-worker, as of every man; but as he bends himself with free valour against his task, all these are stilled, all these shrink murmuring far off into their caves. The man is now a man. The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not a purifying fire, wherein all poison is burnt up? and of sour smoke itself there is made bright, blessed flame!… Work is of a religious nature; work is of a brave nature, which it is the aim of all religion to be.… Admirable was that of the old monks, “Laborare est orare: Work is Worship.” … All true Work is sacred: in all true Work, were it but true hand-labour, there is something of divineness. Labour, wide as the Earth, has its summit in Heaven. Sweat of the brow; and up from that to sweat of the brain, sweat of the heart: which includes all Kepler calculations, Newton meditations, all Sciences, all spoken Epics, all acted Heroisms, Martyrdoms—up to that “Agony of bloody sweat.” which all men have called divine! O brother! if this is not “worship,” then I say the more pity for worship, for this is the noblest thing yet discovered under God’s sky! Who art thou that complainest of thy life of toil? Complain not. Look up, my wearied brother; see thy fellow-Workmen there, in God’s Eternity; surviving there, they alone surviving: sacred band of the Immortals, celestial Body-guard of the Empire of Mankind! Even in the weak Human Memory they survive so long, as saints, as heroes, as gods; they alone surviving; peopling, they alone, the immeasured solitudes of Time! To thee. Heaven, though severe, is not unkind; Heaven is kind—as a noble Mother; as that Spartan Mother, saying, while she gave her son his shield, “With it, my son, or upon it!” Thou too shalt return home, in honour to thy far-distant Home, in honour; doubt it not—if in the battle thou keep thy shield! Thou, in the Eternities and deepest Death-kingdoms, art not an alien; thou everywhere art a denizen! Complain not; the very Spartans did not complain.—Thos. Carlyle.
(c) The man who has adopted the church as a profession, as other men adopt the law, or the army, or the navy, and goes through the routine of its duties with the coldness of a mere official—filled by him, the pulpit seems filled by the ghastly form of a skeleton, that, in its cold and bony fingers, holds a burning lamp.—Thos. Guthrie, D.D.
GOD’S CLAIMS UPON MAN’S SERVICE
These verses suggest the following observations:—
I. That God’s claims upon man’s service are incontestable.
Upon what are they grounded?
1. Upon what He is in Himself. “The Levites shall be Mine … Mine shall they be. I am the Lord.” The concluding words of Numbers 3:13 are better thus expressed: “Mine shall they be, Mine, the Lord’s.” He is the Proprietor of all things. All things and all persons were created by Him, and are sustained by Him. He is over all. He is the greatest, the best Being. And as such His claim upon man is complete and indisputable. The inventor has a right to his invention; the maker to the thing made. So God, etc. The Supremely Great and Good has a right to the admiration, the worship, and the service of all intelligent beings.
2. Upon what He does for man. “All the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the firstborn in Israel,” etc. The preservation of the firstborn of the Israelites on the dread night when all the firstborn of the Egyptians were slain is here put forth by the Lord as a ground of claim upon them. Their preservation was an exercise of the Divine mercy. He spared them that they might devote themselves unreservedly to His service. God spares the sinful race of man, and constantly confers upon the ill-deserving many choice gifts. He has redeemed us at a great cost,—“not with corruptible things, as silver and gold; but with the precious blood of Christ.” His claims upon us are not only incontrovertible, but most heart-constraining also. (a)
Such being the character of His claims upon us, we cannot withhold from Him our loyal and hearty service without incurring the guilt of manifest fraud and basest ingratitude.
II. There is a correspondence between the gifts and the claims of God.
His demands are proportioned to His bestowments. He had spared the lives of the firstborn of Israel, and He claims the firstborn. “Unto whomsoever much is given of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” “Freely ye have received, freely give.” All our possessions and powers involve corresponding responsibilities. (b)
1. This is righteous. No one can truthfully complain that the requirements of God are unreasonable or excessive.
2. This is beneficent. By the operation of this principle the weak are aided by the strong, the great and gifted render much and noble service, etc. Let no one boast of the greatness of his powers or possessions, as though they were his own, etc. “For who maketh thee to differ? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive?” etc. Let us rather be humble, and faithful in the use of all our gifts in God’s service.
III. The Divine arrangements are ever marked by infinite wisdom and kindness.
In the substitution of the tribe of Levi for the firstborn of all the tribes, we have an illustration of this. “And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn,” etc.
1. By assigning the sacred duties of the service of the tabernacle to the one tribe they would be likely to be more faithfully and efficiently performed. The undivided interest of the tribe would be devoted to this holy calling.
2. By this arrangement the convenience of the nation was undoubtedly consulted. The Divine requirements in this respect would be the more easily complied with by this arrangement than by that for which it was substituted.
3. The tribe of Levi was numerically the most fitted for these duties. “This was the smallest tribe, and they were quite enough for the service. To have had a more numerous tribe at this time would have been very inconvenient.”
4. The tribe of Levi had manifested its moral fitness for these duties. By their faithful and courageous defence of the honour of the Lord, by slaying the worshippers of the golden calf, the children of Levi had shown themselves to be the most suitable of all the tribes for this service. So we are able to trace the wisdom and kindness of God in this arrangement. And all His plans and doings are perfectly wise and kind. We may not always be able to discover this wisdom and kindness. But the limitation of our powers should never be regarded as a reason for questioning the Divine perfections. Let every additional illustration of His wisdom and goodness that we discover lead us to cherish increased gratitude to Him, and to repose increased confidence in Him.
(a) A gentleman, visiting a slave-mart, was deeply moved by the agony of a slave-girl, who had been delicately reared, and feared that she should fall into the hands of a rough master. The gentleman inquired her price, paid it to the slave-trader, then placed the bill of sale in her own hands, telling her she was free, and could now go home. The slave-girl could not realise the change at first, but, running after her redeemer, cried, “He has redeemed me! he has redeemed me! Will you let me be your servant?” How much more should we serve Him who has redeemed us from sin, death, and hell?—Dict, of Illust.
(b) Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper, as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, them on thee.
Heaven doth with us, as we with torches do;
Not light them for themselves: for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ’twere all alike
As if we had them not. Spirits are not finely touch’d,
But to fine issues: nor nature never lends
The smallest scruple of her excellence,
But, like a thrifty goddess, she determines
Herself the glory of a creditor,
Both thanks and use.—Shakespeare.
“Measure for Measure,” L L
The earth that in her genial breast
Makes for the down a kindly nest,
Where wafted by the warm south-west
It floats at pleasure,
Yields, thankful, of her very best,
To nurse her treasure:
True to her trust, tree, herb, or reed,
She renders for each scatter’d seed,
And to her Lord with duteous heed
Gives large increase:
Thus year by year she works unfeed,
And will not cease.
Woe worth these barren hearts of ours,
Where Thou has set celestial flowers,
And water’d with more balmy showers
Than e’er distill’d
In Eden, on th’ ambrosial bowers—
Yet nought we yield.
Largely Thou givest, gracious Lord.
Largely Thy gifts should be restor’d,
Freely Thou givest, and Thy word
Is, “Freely give.”
He only, who forgets to hoard,
Has learn’d to live.
THE MEASURE OF THE DIVINE DEMANDS UPON MAN
In the text God calls attention to the reason he had for selecting a tribe for the service of the sanctuary. It was to be in lieu of the firstborn, who were specially His because He smote the firstborn of Egypt to effect the deliverance of Israel. He had a right to the firstborn in the sense that all are His; but, in addition to that, they are now His, as redeemed by Him. It is the same with us now. While all things and all men are God’s, the Christian is especially His—he is His child. God is said to be the father of us all; and so He is. But then we have sinned, and have thereby forfeited all our rights. We are the prisoners of Justice. The parent of the criminal cannot exercise his fatherly functions: practically his child has ceased to be his, for the State claims him. So with us and God. Although as Creator He is the Father of us all, yet, through our sin, we are practically not His children. He cannot exercise the paternal functions towards us till we are ransomed from the curse of the law and become free, which we only do in and through Christ. It is then, by redemption, that we become His dear children, and enjoy all the privileges of sonship. Thus Christians, like the firstborn, specially belong to God; for he has not only given them being, but he has ransomed them.
The text further contains a principle of deep importance to us. As God smote the firstborn of Egypt, He demanded the firstborn of Israel. The measure of their redemption became the measure of His demands from them. He expected them, and He expects us to do in our way what He has done in His way for us. He calls upon us to give to Him what He has given to us. We find the same principle in the New Testament. Christ is more than the sacrifice for sin: He is our Pattern. As He made Himself of no reputation, we are to have the mind that was in Him. We are to crucify self, to die to sin, and to rise again in newness of life.
We shall now take two comprehensive points.
I. God gave the best He had to effect our salvation.
He withheld not His only begotten, His well-beloved Son. A parent’s love to his child is the deepest and tenderest. Such was God’s love to Christ. The sacrifice was the greatest that the Father could make. We feel sure that if man could have been saved in any other way the Son would have been spared the ignominy, the bitterness, and the pain He endured through His life and in His death. God gave Him, the best, the chiefest treasure that He had, for our ransom. In this we have a significant hint of what He expects from us. We must give Him the very best of all we are and of all we have. As there was no salvation without God giving His best for us, so there is no religion unless we are prepared to give our best to Him. There is no hardship in this. It really means no more than this, that we are to love Him supremely. He asks nothing of us that He has Dot done for us first Himself. In the life of Christ this is conspicuous. He lived all His sermons. He taught much that was new, that was hard to do, and was against the practice of the world; but He did it all first Himself. God has given us His best in giving His Son; let us then give our best of everything to Him.
II. The Son gave Himself.
On the part of Christ there was the sacrifice of His own life as the ransom for our sin. Redemption is more than doctrine—it is the Son of God giving Himself for man. Just so, religion is more than creed—it is man giving Himself to God. Christ might have given many things; but nothing would do for our salvation but the consecration of Himself. This is the extent of God’s demand on us. “My son, give me thine heart.” We have to yield ourselves to Him. Not merely to die for Him, but to give up ourselves to live for Him—to burn out in His work—to be faithful unto death—which is often harder to do than to die for Him. Many are willing to give time, talents, money. But Christ wants us. He knows that if we give Him our heart we shall give Him all; and if we withhold this from Him, we give Him nothing at all. Consecrate yourselves to Him as He did Himself for you. This is the great principle of the text. And it is the principle which governs God’s demands of us at the present day. Let us sacrifice ourselves to God as He sacrificed His Son for us. I urge this because—
1. Thus only can we attain to a high ideal in religion. Be the best possible Christian: be not content with mediocrity: aim high.
2. This is the best way to be useful. The power of Christianity is in the fact of Christ giving Himself. Our influence for good is in proportion to our self-sacrifice.
3. This is the way to enjoy religion. The more we give of self to God, the more will He give of Himself to us.
Let all think of what God has done for them, and consider what returns they have made to Him.
THE NUMBERING OF THE LEVITES: COMMAND AND OBEDIENCE
In these verses we have the command of the Lord to Moses to number the Levites, and the record of the obedience of Moses. In dealing with the command we shall notice only such suggestions as arise out of that part of it in which it differs most from the command to number the other tribes. In the other tribes “every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war” were numbered. But concerning the tribe of Levi, Moses is directed to number “every male from a month old and upward.” This command is suggestive of—
I. The interest of God in childhood.
The tribe of Levi was not appointed to the same service as the other tribes; and, consequently, they are not numbered by the same rule. “Number the children of Levi,—every male from a month old and upward shalt thou number them.” The Levites “were to be sanctified to Jehovah in the place of the firstborn; and it was at the age of a month that the latter were either to be given up or redeemed” (compare Numbers 3:40; Numbers 3:43 with chap, Numbers 18:16). The children of the Levites were to be taught that from their infancy they belonged to the Lord, and were dedicated to His service. Only 8,580 out of 22,000 were regarded as fit to be employed in the service of the tabernacle, yet all were numbered as belonging to the Lord. God is profoundly and tenderly interested in childhood. In His spiritual Kingdom, in which all His loyal subjects are priests, He claims for His service every child even from the very dawn of its existence. His interest in little children is strikingly illustrated in the presentation of the little child by the Lord to His disciples as the picture of the “greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:1-6.) And perhaps even more strikingly in the blessing which He be towed upon the infants that were brought to Him for that purpose. (Matthew 19:13-15.) It is the duty of Christian parents to recognise God’s claim upon their offspring, and to dedicate them to Him. That dedication cannot take place too early, since from their very birth they are His by the divinest rights. It is also their duty to train their children for Him. “Ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath; but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Let parents be encouraged in the performance of their duty by the interest of God in their offspring. He will approve and bless their devout efforts. (a)
The command here given to Moses suggests,—
II. The generosity of God’s dealings with man.
He here accepts even infants, who must live many years before they can actively engage in His service, in exchange for able-bodied men. “Observe we again with comfort,” saith Bishop Babington, “what exchanges God maketh with men. He taketh a child of a month old, and foregoeth a firstborn of ripe years. Such is His manner and most gracious goodness; He giveth more than He wanteth, and gainers ever are His children by Him. Job had a bitter trial and a heavy loss, yet mark the end, and the Lord made him greater than ever he was—the Lord blessing the last days of Job, as the text saith, more than the first, etc. David’s child was taken away, but a far better was given again, even Solomon, the wisest son that ever father had. A cake was taken of the poor widow of Sarepta for His prophet, but what a requital made God unto her? The meal in the barrel and the oil in the cruse decayed not till other comfort grew. Another kindness done by the Shunamite, was it not recompensed by that blessing that was so vehemently wished—even a son; first given, and after revived from death to life again? Think of the saying in the Gospel concerning this point: ‘Verily I say unto you, there is no man that hath forsaken house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for My sake and the Gospel’s, but he shall receive an hundred-fold now at this present, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands with persecutions, and in the world to come life everlasting.’ See the change, and mark the gain for your exceeding comfort. Such a God is our God, that not a cup of cold water can be given, but He will yield a far greater gift for it. We cannot visit Him, feed Him, clothe Him, etc., in His poor members, but He will acknowledge it before the host of heaven, and give that which passeth ten thousand worlds—eternal joy in heaven.”
Let us notice,—
III. The obedience of God’s servant.
“And Moses numbered them according to the word of the Lord, as he was commanded.” The point to which prominence is here given is the completeness of the obedience. It was not merely general, but particular. He conformed to the directions which he had received from the Lord in detail. Herein he is an example to us. Nothing which God directs can be trifling or unimportant. What Infinite Wisdom commands minutely, it must be both our duty and our interest minutely to do. “General obedience,” says Dr. Parker, “is only so far good: we must be minute and exhaustive, or we shall incur Divine displeasure. Learn that Divine language never exceeds Divine meaning. There is significance in every word; you cannot amputate a single syllable without doing violence to the Divine idea.” Let us strive to render complete and hearty obedience to all the commands of God. (b)
(a) God’s interest in human life begins at the earliest possible period. This is an argument for infant baptism which I have never known to be touched, much less shaken. The narrow critics who have taken upon themselves to settle that question, have been fighting each other with Greek derivatives and grammatical inflexions, as if any moral question could be settled by such means! I make this question one of life, not one of grammar; and I put this direct and urgent inquiry—namely, When does God’s interest in human life begin? When does Christ’s heart begin to yearn in pity over all human creatures? When does compassion’s tear well into the Redeemer’s eyes? When does He feel the kindling of love towards human beings? Is it when they are five years old, or ten—does He shut up His love until they are twenty-one? The question may appear quaint, but I press it; I urge a distinct answer—When does Christ’s interest in human life begin? I contend that His interest relates to life, not to age; to birth, not to birth-days. As soon as a child is born, that great redeeming heart yearns with pitying love. What has Christ to do with what we call age? What is age? It may be useful for us to keep a record of anniversaries, to tabulate for statistical purposes, to call one man twenty and another forty, though forty, in reality, may be less than twenty; but will you presume to reduce Christ to a commercial agent, who deals with men according to their age? No! I hold to it as a sweet joy, a most delicious and enrapturing thought, that Jesus Christ interests Himself in me, that my name was written in His heart ere it fell from my mother’s lips, and that before a father knows the mystery and pride of parental life, Jesus experiences the travail of the soul which yearns to make the child an heir of immortality.—Jos. Parker, D.D.
(b) Nothing is more certain or clear than that human souls are made for law, and so for the abode of God. Without law therefore, without God, they must even freeze and die. Hence even Christ Himself must needs establish and sanctify the law; for the deliverance and liberty He comes to bring are still to be sought only in obedience. Henceforth duty is the brother of liberty, and both rejoice in the common motherhood of law. And just here, my friends, is the secret of a great part of your misery and of the darkness that envelopes your life. Without obligation you have no light, save what little may prick through your eyelids. Only he that keeps God’s commandments walks in the light. The moment you can make a very simple discovery, viz., that obligation to God is your privilege, and is not imposed as a burden, your experience will teach you many things—that duty is liberty, that repentance is a release from sorrow, that sacrifice is gain, that humility is dignity, that the truth from which you hide is a healing element that bathes your disordered life, and that even the penalties and terrors of God are the artillery only of protection to His realm.—H. Bushnell, D.D.
It ought to be the great care of every one of us to follow the Lord fully. We must, in a course of obedience to God’s will, and service to His honour, follow Him universally, without dividing; uprightly, without dissembling; cheerfully, without disputing; and constantly, without declining: and this is following Him fully.—M. Henry.
SACRED THINGS AND DUTIES
Numbers 3:36. The custody and charge. Margin: “Hebrew, the office of the charge.”
Numbers 3:38. Keeping the charge of the sanctuary for the charge of the children of Israel, “i.e., to attend to everything that was binding upon the children of Israel in relation to the care of the sanctuary, as no stranger was allowed to approach it on pain of death.”—Keil and Del.
Numbers 3:39. The number of the Levites as stated in this verse is 22,000; but as stated in Numbers 3:22; Numbers 3:28; Numbers 3:34, it is 22, 300. Various attempts have been made to reconcile the two. That of Dr. Kennicott, given by Dr. A. Clarke, in loco, seems to us the most reasonable. “Formerly, the numbers of the Hebrew Bible were expressed by letters, and not by words of full length; and if two nearly similar letters were mistaken for each other, many errors in the number must be the consequence. Now it is probable that an error has crept into the number of the Gershonites, Numbers 3:22, where instead of 7,500 we should read 7,200 as ך caph, 500, might have been easily mistaken for ר resh, 200, especially if the down stroke of the caph had been a little shorter than ordinary, which is often the case in MSS.” Keil and Del. regard the discrepancy as arising from “a copyist’s error in the number of one of the Levitical families; possibly in Numbers 3:28 we should read שׁלשׁ for שׁשׁ (8,300 for 8,600).”
In these verses we have the record of the numbering of the Levites, with the names of the chiefs who had the oversight of them, the places assigned to them about the tabernacle, and the duties as distributed amongst them. They suggest the following homiletic points. Notice—
I. The Divine directions for insuring order.
By Divine direction the whole tribe is arranged in four divisions, the families composing each division are clearly distinguished, the station of each division is appointed, a chief is set over each division, and Eleazar the son of Aaron is appointed chief over the chiefs. In this we clearly discover a Divine recognition of—
1. The importance of arrangement and order. (See our notes and illustration on chap, 2, Numbers 3:1-2, on this point.)
2. The importance of supervision and authority for the maintenance of order. (On this point see our notes and illustrations on Society’s need of leaders, ch. Numbers 1:4-16.)
II. The Divine distribution of duty.
1. The duties were distributed amongst the whole. No family was exempted; nor was any individual of the prescribed age, etc. There was work for all, and for every one. So in our day there is most urgent need for the services of every true man and woman. The greatest need of both the Church and the world is true-hearted labourers.
“There’s something for us all to do
In this great world of ours;
There’s work for me; there’s work for you,
Heaven sounds no idle hours:
We have a mission to perform,
A post of trust to fill,
Then rouse the soul, and nerve the arm,
And lend the lofty will.” (a)
2. The duties distributed to each division were different from those distributed to the other divisions. Moses, and Aaron and his sons, were appointed to the position of the highest honour and the weightiest responsibility. The duties which rank second in honour were allotted to the Kohathites. To the Merarites, which, though the smallest of the families of Levi, yet contained the largest number of able-bodied men (compareNumbers 3:22; Numbers 3:22; Numbers 3:28; Numbers 3:34, and ch. 4 Numbers 3:36; Numbers 3:40; Numbers 3:44), were allotted the most heavy and laborious duties. All men cannot work at the same tasks or in the same way. Division of duty is
(1) necessary, because of the differences in the kind and degree of ability amongst men. (b) It is also
(2) advantageous. By means of it more work may be accomplished and better. The advantage will be found both in the quantity and in the quality of the results. Contrast the ancient and the modern method of pin manufacture in illustration of this point.
3. The duties of all were Divine. All were engaged in the service of God; all were appointed by God. The duties were assigned to each division and to all as a “charge” from God—a sacred trust. So now, all duty, even the lowliest and most menial, when rightly regarded and faithfully discharged, is holy. The highest duties can never of themselves exalt the hireling or the unfaithful worker; but the spirit of the faithful and devoted worker will dignify and hallow the meanest labours. (c)
III. The Divine recognition of the sacredness of things associated with religious worship.
Not only the ark and the altars, but the hangings, the coverings, the cords, the boards, the bars, the sockets, the pins, etc., connected with the tabernacle were given in solemn charge to the Levites. All these things were to be held as sacred. And if any stranger came nigh to the sanctuary itself he was to be put to death. And still there are sacred places and sacred things. They have been made sacred neither by the “consecration” of pope or cardinal, of archbishop or bishop, nor by the “dedication” of any minister or ministers; but by the memories which gather round them, or by the uses to which they are set apart. To reverent spirits the commonest things are hallowed by sacred uses, and even the plainest places are consecrated by pure and precious associations. The spiritual history of every godly man has its sacred places. And have we not each things which are profoundly sacred to us personally? (d)
Let us endeavour to be true and tender in sentiment, pure and reverent in feeling, and hearty and faithful in duty.
(a) There is something for all to do, but by different instruments—one by his organ, another by his piano, another by his paint-brush, another by his sculptor’s chisel, another by his plough, another by his carpenter’s tools, another by his trowel—every man by that to which he is called in the providence of God, that he may give some expression to the inwardness that is waked up in him. There are rude workmen who have, back of their hand, back of their skill, a soul that is trying to express itself in the realities of life. This is the ordination which makes true manhood and true genius.—H. W. Beecher.
(b) See the illustration on Numbers 3:5-10, by Dr. Parker.
(c) Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in any thing,
To do it as for Thee:
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espie.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture (for Thy sake)
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold:
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
See also the illustration by Carlyle given under Numbers 3:5-10.
(d) It is given us to transfer our own mental and moral nature to the objects of our sight or of our conception One man, who has never read the Sacred History, and whose mind is wholly uninformed as to its wonderful facts, might visit the Holy Land and make himself familiar with its existing scenery, and as his foot impressed its hallowed soil, and his eye rested on its mountains and its vales, on its rivers and its lakes, and on all its natural phenomena, he might betray no more emotion than would be awakened by the contemplation of similar phenomena in any other part of the world; while another man, who had imbibed the spirit and the inspiration of the Bible, and whose faith reposed in its simple, yet sublime narratives, would everywhere find the most extraordinary appearances, and feel that he was in a land teeming with miracles. To him, “every name commemorates a mystery—every grotto announces a prediction—every hill echoes the accent of a prophet.” He cannot get away from the impression that “God Himself has spoken in those regions—dried up rivers—rent the rocks—and opened the graves.” To him “the desert still appears mute with terror;” and he imagines that it can never have “presumed to interrupt the silence, since it heard the awful voice of the Eternal!” He feels that he is on holy ground; and his very step is reverent. He approaches every object with deepening awe, and like Moses at the burning-bush, sees everything glowing with Divine glory. The natural scenery of Palestine may not be superior to that which is to be found in other parts of the world; but where can we find a country so rich in associations, or with what other place can we connect associations so hallowed and so unique! It is our remembrances and our memories which give to the outward phenomena such transcendent interest. We throw the whole living flame of our holiest feeling upon everthing without us and around us, and everywhere we see beauty, and magnificence and glory—everywhere we trace the footsteps of Divinity, and everywhere we hear the voice of God.—R. Ferguson, LL.D.
I. They differed in importance, yet there was no vain ambition.
II. They differed in labour, yet there was no complaining.
III. They differed in nature, yet were all undertaken with equal cheerfulness.
IV. They differed according to the wise will of God.—The Biblical Museum.
THE RESPONSIBILITY OF EACH AND THE CO-OPERATION OF ALL IN THE SERVICE OF GOD
(Numbers 3:25-26; Numbers 3:31; Numbers 3:36-37)
Having chosen the Levites for His service, God portions out their work to them. The priesthood was conferred upon Aaron and his family, and the rest of the tribe were to assist them in the service of the tabernacle. In making these arrangements the character of Moses stands out strikingly prominent. He does not demur because his tribe has no inheritance, neither do we find him seeking any special honour for his own family. Few men there are who are not injured by prosperity and power, and who take no advantage of their position to further the interests of their families. Nepotism is common in Church and State. Moses was above that, and was ready to acquiesce in God’s way, thinking it great honour to his family to be engaged in His service, though in the humble position of Levites.
God divides the tribe of Levi, having selected from it the family of Aaron for the priesthood, into three distinct families; and, in the text, He gives to each his own work to do in connection with the tabernacle. Their duty in the wilderness was to carry it and its furniture from place to place, etc. Each had his work to do, and all had to co-operate. Thus the tabernacle and its services were ever attended to, and God’s work among the people was constantly carried on. Looking thus at the verses which constitute our text, they suggest to us the subject of personal responsibility and co-operation in the service of God.
I. God has a work for every one of His children to do, and He expects each one to do it.
He holds each responsible for it. We are to be His servants; we are to be useful. He brings up none of His children in luxurious idleness. God hates idleness. Amongst the countless forms and varieties of life in the universe, there is not one that has not some purpose to answer—something given it to do by its Creator. To show how He hates idleness He has linked poverty to it. It is so in religion too. The spiritual idler is ever a spiritual pauper, and can never possess the riches of religion. We must work before we can possess them. The hand of the diligent God blesses. There is much need of calling attention to this truth at the present day. The age is a luxurious one; ease and comfort seem to be the ends of life. This spirit is creeping into our churches. It is difficult to get people to realize their responsibility, and to work for God. They guage everything by the amount of pleasure it gives, and not by the good it is calculated to do them. Men ought to have a higher ideal. God saves us that we might be His fellow-workers. God makes us soldiers before He makes us saints. The highest test of religion is not enjoyment, but usefulness. There is joy in religion. It is the most joyous thing in the world; but then the joy is associated with work. There is no real pleasure in idleness. It is the working man, and not the skulking idler, that has the most physical enjoyment. So in spiritual things. There is no luxury like that of doing good. If any Christian lacks joy in religion, let him work more for God. He expects us all to be workers. None are exempt. There is not one without a “talent;” and God expects it with usury. He exempts none on the ground of youth or age, of inability or weakness, etc. If you are poor, you can show how religion can support in poverty. If you are old, you can “bring forth fruit in old age.” Sometimes a Christian is laid by through affliction, and feels that he is of no use whatever. But the sick bed of a child of God is of great profit to the world and to the Church by showing how religion can support the mind and comfort the heart in trial. Moreover, the afflicted Christian can benefit others by intercession with God. We all know how the suffering child prevails with his parent, and none can tell what the world and the Church owe to the prayers of God’s suffering children. All can do something for God. He has given it them to do, and He holds them responsible for it.
II. Not only does God expect each one to work for Him, but He expects all to co-operate in His service.
Each Levite had his own work to perform, but the three divisions were to move together and to halt together. Without their co-operation the tabernacle could not have been erected, and God would not have appeared on the Mercy-seat. We are not to be isolated workers, but fellow-labourers. While it is true that each one is accountable only for himself, it is also true that no one liveth to himself. If we are units, we are parts of a whole. Paul takes the different parts of the human body as an illustration of the body of Christ, which is the Church. Co-operation is the secret of success. The Church and the Sunday-school, the pulpit and the pew, each must do its own work, and all must work together, if the work of God is to prosper amongst us. It ought to be so between various Churches—the different sections of the one Church of the living God. The work of God suffers for the want of co-operation. Often jealousy and rivalry creep in amongst us; we watch one another instead of our common foe, and prosperity becomes impossible. Are we not all soldiers of the same Christ? Different regiments in one and the same army? The dress may differ, but we all bear the coat-of-arms of our King. Surely, then, there ought to be no jealousy amongst us, and we ought to band together to fight against His enemies. The Church of God must come closer together, and co-operate more heartily, before the world is won for Christ. No opposition can stand before the united Church of God.—David Lloyd.
THE COMPLETENESS OF GOD’S CLAIMS, AND THE DIGNITY OF HIS SERVICE
In this section of the history we have the account of the numbering of the firstborn males throughout the twelve tribes in order to effect the exchange of the Levites for them, which God had commanded. Three enquiries claim our attention.
1. How are we to account for so large a number of firstborn in so short a time? The command for the sanctification of the firstborn, recorded in Exodus 13:1-2, was not retrospective, but was meant to apply to all that should be born from that time forward. “Hence the difficulty is to explain how the firstborn sons, amongst two millions of persons in a single year, could have been so many as is stated in the text; and it must be admitted, notwithstanding the well-known and often remarkable fluctuations in statistics of this sort, that some unusual causes must have been concerned. Such, not to mention the Divine Blessing, may be found in the sudden development of national energies which would immediately ensue on the exodus. Before that event, the miserable estate of the people, and especially the inhuman order for the destruction of their first-born, would check very seriously the ratio of marriages and births; and this ratio would naturally, when the check was removed, exhibit a sudden and striking increase.”—Speaker’s Comm. As additional arguments, the great fruitfulness of the Israelitish women, and the fact that amongst them the proportion of male births is unusually large, are adduced. (See Keil and Del. in loco.)
2. What is the value of “the shekel of the sanctuary?” “Here the shekel is evidently a weight, and of a special system of which the standard examples were probably kept by the priests.” At this time silver, and not gold, was used as the standard of value. It is impossible to determine exactly what was the value of the “sacred shekel” as compared with our English money of to-day, but probably it would be about two shillings and sixpence.
3. Who paid the redemption money for the 273 firstborn who were in excess of the number of the Levites? “The redemption money,” says The Speaker’s Comm., “would perhaps be exacted from the parents of the youngest children of the 22,273, they being in the case most nearly approaching that of those who would pay the tax for the redemption of the first-born in future.” But the opinion of Attersoll, A. Clarke, and others, seems to us the most probable. Was the money paid “by the firstborn that were last numbered, or by the people? I answer,” says Attersoll, “by the people, to Moses, for the priests: for so doth common equity require, that one might not be eased, and another burdened. But if these firstborn had borne the burden, and others been freed from the payment of this sum appointed and enjoined, there had been no equity nor equality observed, which the dignity of holy things seemeth to require.”
The command for substituting the Levites for the firstborn (Numbers 3:11-13) we have already considered, and endeavoured to show the reason of the substitution. In considering this portion of the history we confine our attention to two main homiletic points. Notice,—
I. The completeness of God’s claims.
We see this here in two things:
1. He claims not only the firstborn of Israel, but also the firstlings of their cattle. (See Numbers 3:41; Numbers 3:45.) All were His by right of creation. “Every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.” Moreover, the cattle of Israel were spared on that night when “all the firstborn of cattle” belonging to the Egyptians were slain. So that His claim upon the firstborn of cattle, both as having created and as having spared them, rested on the same ground as His claim upon the firstborn sons, (See our notes on Numbers 3:11-13.) “The cattle of the Levites were doubtless taken in the gross as an equivalent for the firstborn cattle of the other tribes, which of course, no less than the firstborn of men, belonged to the Lord; and in future would have to be redeemed.” (See Exodus 13:11-15; Numbers 18:15; Deuteronomy 15:19.)
God claims ours as well as us; what we have as well as what we are; first ourselves, then our possessions. (Comp. Matthew 10:37-39; Matthew 19:21-24.) When we have truly given ourselves to the Lord we shall withhold nothing else from Him. And apart from this self-consecration to Him, the consecration of even our most costly and treasured possessions is not acceptable to Him. Without our supreme love all other gifts are worthless in His sight. (Comp. Psalms 50:7-14, and Isaiah 1:11-14.)
2. He claims that the 273 firstborn in excess of the Levites shall be redeemed by money. He does not accept the Levites as a whole for the firstborn as a whole, taking no account of their relative numbers. The Levites must be numbered, and the firstborn must be numbered, and as there is an excess in the number of the firstborn, every one of these must be redeemed. Every one is His; and He is not willing to lose any one. May we not regard this as exhibiting His high estimate of men? We are so precious in His sight that He will not lose one of us if He can prevent it. His heart yearns in unutterable love towards every prodigal wanderer from His service, His home, and His heart. “Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you.… How shall I put thee among the children, and give thee a pleasant land, a goodly heritage of the hosts of nations? and I said, Thou shalt call Me, My Father; and shalt not turn away from Me.” “When Israel was a child, then I loved him,” etc. “How shall I give thee up Ephraim?” etc. God is so exact in His claims upon us, because His love toward us is so great. His demands are always characterised by
(1) generosity. We have seen (in considering Numbers 3:11-13) that the substitution of the Levites was for the advantage of the people. All His requirements are unspeakably kind in their intention, and beneficent in their operation.
(2) Exactness. There is no exaggeration in His claims, nor anything unreasonable. He means what He says. He really requires what He demands. He claims from us the unreserved consecration of ourselves and our possessions,—that all shall be used in accordance with His will, etc. Have we duly considered His claims? Are we complying with them? “I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present,” etc. Romans 12:1.
II. The dignity of God’s service.
It was instead of the firstborn that the tribe of Levi was chosen for the service of the tabernacle, or the ministry of religion. Now amongst the Jews the firstborn son ranked higher than the other members of the family, and enjoyed special privileges and honours. He received a double portion of the estate; he exercised an authority over the younger members of the family similar to that of a father; and he was the priest of the entire family. “The birthright of Esau and of Reuben, set aside by authority or forfeited by misconduct, prove a general privilege as well as quasi-sacredness of primogeniture (Genesis 25:23; Genesis 25:31; Genesis 25:34; Genesis 49:3; 1 Chronicles 5:1; Hebrews 12:16), and a precedence which obviously existed, and is alluded to in several passages (as Psalms 89:27; Job 18:13; Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 12:23).” Now inasmuch as the religious functions of the firstborn were given to the Levites, is not the inference warranted that their service as the ministers of religion was especially honourable? This is true of the Christian minister, because of—
1. The position which He occupies. He is the messenger of God to men. He stands before man instead of Jesus Christ. “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead,” etc “Verily, verily,” said our Lord, “He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth Me; and he that receiveth Me, receiveth Him that sent Me.”
2. The Work in which he is engaged.
It is his business to expound and illustrate the saving truth of God, and to apply that truth to the souls of men with their many and deep needs; to lead men in their approaches to the throne of the Highest in public worship; and by every possible means to promote the divine culture of human spirits. There can be no work more responsible and honourable than this.
3. The object for which he labours. The grand aim of the Christian ministry is the salvation of the souls of men. How transcendently great and important is this aim!
(1) Think of the soul—its powers, preciousness, etc. How great are its possibilities of progress, usefulness, enjoyment; or of degradation, mischief, misery! Unlimited are the possibilities of every human soul. Consider the Divine estimate of it. We see this in the stupendous price paid for its redemption. “He gave His only begotten Son,” etc. “Redeemed with the precious blood of Christ,” etc. We see the Divine estimate of its worth also in the means and agencies which God employs for its salvation.
(2) Think what its salvation means. Not merely deliverance from punishment, etc. But restoration to the Divine image. “To be conformed to the image of his Son,” etc. “That ye might be partakers of the Divine nature,” etc. How grand then is the object of the Christian ministry! And how exalted the honour of those who are called to its sacred services!
A service so important and honourable:
First: Demands for its faithful discharge, great gifts, great godliness, and great devotion, (a)
Second: Should be highly esteemed by men and especially by Christians. To this high and holy service let Christian parents consecrate with gladness their best and most gifted sons. Let Christian young men not shrink from it by reason of any of the sacrifices which it involves; but if called thereto, count it the highest honour, etc. (b) Let all esteem the true minister of Christ highly because of the work in which he is engaged, and the Divine Being whom he represents. (c)
(a) Your work is not lightened by the extraordinary development of education and literature within the last few years, nor by the certainty that it will take huge strides in advance before you have reached middle life. In a few years every village will swarm with men and women who will have gone through, in one form or another, more mental training and competitive examination in some departments of literature, science, or art, than was the lot of four-fifths of the professional men of half a century ago. Those who have nothing to say, and who obviously have no mental culture, will soon be scoffed out of the position of public teachers in every department. The love of luxury, the passion for the sensuous and the comfortable, the desire for amusement, for strong sensation, for pleasing spectacle, for fresh effects, which have impregnated every department of modern life and duty, have entered into the house of God, so that all the wisdom of the serpent must be joined with the harmlessness of the dove to do successful battle with the spirit of the world within the sanctuary of God. The beautiful building, the well-trained choir, the comfortable pew, the gorgeous effect, have not infrequently been the ghastly sepulchre of a dead church. Unchristlike passions are not charmed by sweet music, nor subtle speculation; nor are unspiritual men sanctified by sentimental eloquence, or moral essays, or stained windows. And believe me the great tide of human suffering and wrong doing, of hopeless toil, of grievous sickness and poverty, of boundless avarice and greed, is hardly touched by all the work of all our preachers, teachers, and philanthropists of every school. The knell is always ringing, and the spirits of men are always passing away in dread procession to the silent land … It appears to me that another great desideratum is what some might call enthusiasm; some, intensity of conviction; some would call it life. I prefer to speak of it as reality. My brethren, the one thing we want is absorbing realisation of the end of preaching; such a treatment of truth, and such a dealing with souls, that those who hear must at least know that the preacher believes what he says, and is putting forth every available power to make others see it with his eyes. If men speak of the Father God, it should be because they know what it is to be His child, and have found peace in His house, and have laid their head on His bosom. If they dare to lift the veil of the supernatural darkness which shrouds Gethsemane and Calvary, will it not be with sore amaze and eyes filled with tears? Yet is this the tone of our ordinary preaching?—H. R. Reynolds, D.D. From an Address to Students for the Ministry.
(b) Gentlemen, yours is a noble vocation. To be the ally of Christ in His great endeavour to save the world,—with Him to assert the authority of the throne and law of God; with Him to support human weakness in its vacillating endeavours to do the Divine will; to inspire the sinful with trust in the Divine mercy; to console sorrow; to awaken in the hearts of the poor, the weak, the desolate, the consciousness of their relations to the Infinite and Eternal God; to exalt and dignify the lives of old men and maidens, young men and children, by revealing to them things unseen and eternal which surround them now, and the mysterious, awful, glorious life which lies beyond death—this is a great work. There is nothing on earth comparable to it.—R. W. Dale, D.D.
(c) As Paul shows the Thessalonians how the preachers of the Word should be honoured, so he teaches the Philippians how to honour their teacher, saying:—“Receive him in the Lord with great gladness, and make much of such” (Numbers 2:29); that is, show yourselves glad of him, that he may be glad of you. Have you any need to be taught why Paul would have you make much of such? Because they are like lamps which consume themselves to give light to others; so they consume themselves to give light to you. Because they are like a hen which clucks her chickens together from the kyte; so they cluck you together from the serpent. Because they are like the great shouts which beat down the walls of Jericho; so they beat down the walls of sin. Because they are like the fiery pillar which went before the Israelites to the Land of Promise, so they go before you to the Land of Promise. Because they are like good Andrew, who called his brother to see the Messias; so they call you to see the Messias; and therefore make much of such.—Henry Smith.
He’s Christ’s ambassador that man of God,
Steward of God’s own mysteries! From on high
His warrant is: his charge, aloud to cry,
And spread his Master’s attributes abroad,
His works, His ark of mercy, and His rod
Of justice: his to sinners to supply
The means of grace, and point how they may fly
Hell-flames, and how Heaven’s pathway must be trod.
Hold him in honour on his works’ account,
And on his Master’s! Though a man he be,
And with his flock partake corruption’s fount,
Holy and reverend is his ministry:
And, hark! a voice sounds from the heavenly mount,
“He that despiseth you, despiseth ME!”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 3". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20