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Critical Notes.—Numbers 4:3. צָבָא, host, “signifies military service, and is used here with special reference to the service of the Levites as the militia sacra of Jehovah.”—Keil and Del.
Numbers 4:4. “Omit the word about, which is unnecessarily supplied. The sense is, ‘this is the charge of the sons of Kohath, the most holy things:’ i.e., the Ark of the Covenant, the Table of Shewbread, the Candlestick, and the Golden Altar, as appears from the verses following, together with the furniture pertaining thereto.”—Speaker’s Comm.
Numbers 4:6. Put in the staves. “Rather probably, ‘put the staves thereof in order.’ These were never taken out of the golden rings by which the Ark was to be borne (see Exodus 25:14-15), but would need adjustment after the process described in Numbers 4:5-6, which would be likely to disturb them.”—Ibid.
Numbers 4:10; Numbers 4:12. חַמּוֹט, a bar, a bearing frame, or as in ch. Numbers 13:23, a pole for bearing on the shoulder.
Numbers 4:20. When the holy things are covered “Literally, כְּבַלַּע Keballa, when they are swallowed down; which shows the promptitude with which everything belonging to the holy of holies was put out of sight, for these mysteries must ever be treated with the deepest reverence.”—A. Clarke. “Render: to see the holy things for an instant. The expression means literally, ‘as a gulp,’ i.e., for the instant it takes to swallow.”—Speaker’s Comm.
The numbering in this chapter differs from that recorded in the preceding chapter. In that every male from a month old and upward of the tribe of Levi was numbered, in order that they might take the place of the firstborn of all the tribes. In this only those who were fitted by their age for the service of the tabernacle, “from thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old,” were numbered for that service.
The first main division of this chapter (Numbers 4:1-20) we shall take as suggesting for homiletic treatment the following subject:—
ASPECTS OF THE CHRISTIAN MINISTRY
Looking at these verses in this light, the following points are suggested. The Christian ministry is,—
I. An arduous service.
The Levites were here numbered “from thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, to do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation.” The men selected for service were in the full maturity of their physical powers. Such men were needed, for the labour of the Levites was very severe during the journeyings of the Israelites. “When we consider,” says A. Clarke, “that there was not less than 10 tons 13 cwt. 24 lbs. 14 oz., i.e., almost ten tons and fourteen hundred pounds’ weight of metal employed in the tabernacle, besides the immense weight of the skins, hangings, cords, boards, and posts, we shall find it was no very easy matter to transport this moveable temple from place to place.” “The work of the ministry,” says Trapp, “is not an idle man’s occupation, but a labouring even to lassitude; compared therefore to harvest work, and to that of cleaving wood, digging in mine-pits, rowing with oars, etc. All the comfort is, that God that helped the Levites to bear the Ark of the Covenant (1 Chronicles 15:26), will not be wanting to His weak, but willing servants, ‘that labour in the Word and doctrine’ (1 Timothy 5:17).”
II. A Holy Warfare.
The service of the Levites is regarded in this aspect in the third verse, where all who engage in it are said to “enter into the host.” This is expressed more fully and clearly in Numbers 4:23 : “all that enter in to perform the service.” Margin: “to war the warfare.” Fuerst: “to do military service.” In the New Testament the ministry of the Word is called a warfare, and faithful ministers of the Gospel good soldiers of Christ, and their doctrines weapons of war. Compare 2 Corinthians 10:3-4; 1 Timothy 1:18; 2 Timothy 2:3; 2 Timothy 4:7. “Every faithful minister,” says Burkitt, “is a spiritual soldier, warring under Jesus Christ, his captain and chief commander: must the soldier be called and do all by commission? So must the minister. Must the soldier be armed, trained up, and disciplined, and made fit for service? So must the minister. Must the soldier shun no dangers, stick at no difficulties, pass through thick and thin? must he use allowed weapons, approved armour of his general’s directing, not of his own inventing? All this must the minister be and do.… He must also please his Captain, not please himself, his appetite, his pride, his covetousness, much less must be please the enemies he is to fight against—the devil, the world, and the flesh.”
III. A Sacred Charge.
The Levites had to do with consecrated things; the Kohathites with “the most holy things.” They are most solemnly enjoined to exercise the most reverent care in the performance of their duties. They were to carry the most holy things, but not to touch them or curiously pry into them upon pain of death (Numbers 4:15; Numbers 4:17-20). The ministry of the Gospel is a charge still more sacred. He who is called to its high and holy duties is under the most solemn obligations to expound the revealed will of God, to break the bread of life to men, to labour diligently for the salvation of souls, and to seek in all things the glory of God. He is solemnly charged to “preach the word, convict, rebuke, exhort in all long suffering and teaching;” to “feed the flock of God, … being ensamples to the flock.” “They watch for souls, as they that must give account.”
Our text suggests further, that the Christian ministry,—
IV. Demands the exercise of the highest faculties of those who are called to it.
1. Their mature powers. Of the Levites numbered for active service none were to be under thirty or over fifty years old: they were to be in the very zenith of physical strength. And the duties of the Christian ministry challenge the utmost energies of those who undertake them. The design of this arrangement was probably twofold:
(1) That the service might be satisfactorily performed. The Levitical duties in the wilderness could be properly discharged only by strong men. It is noteworthy that Joseph was thirty years old when he stood before Pharaoh, and David when he began to reign, and John the Baptist when he entered upon his mission, and Jesus Christ when He commenced His ministry. But is this a rule binding the Church of Christ? Certainly not; for a man may be young in years, yet old in gifts, and in the graces of character which are necessary to this calling. And, on the other hand, a man may be old in years, yet a mere babe as regards the gifts and graces requisite for this sacred office. “Such as execute this holy calling,” says Attersoll, “ought to be qualified with judgment, gravity, sobriety, integrity, diligence, yea with power, courage, strength, and to have agility and ability in mind and body, that they may do all things wisely, exactly, studiously, and constantly.” (a)
2. That the servants might not be overburdened. That this end was contemplated in this arrangement appears from this, that the young men were taken into training when they were twenty-five years of age, and into laborious service when they were thirty, and the aged did not cease from service at fifty, but only from severe labours (see ch. Numbers 8:23-26). And it is important that the energies of the young Christian minister be not over-taxed, lest both the quality and duration of his service be diminished thereby. And as for the aged, as M. Henry remarks, “twenty years good service was thought pretty well for one man.”
2. Their acquaintance with their duties. The duties of the priests and of the Levites of each division are particularly set forth in this chapter. Each one must become acquainted with his own. The Christian minister must learn his Master’s will, study his Master’s Word, thoughtfully consider the needs of those amongst whom he labours, etc.
3. A reverent spirit. Reverently were the sacred vessels to be borne and regarded. Prying curiosity was utterly and sternly prohibited. “Note the great care,” says Babington, “God hath to maintain reverence of holy things in men’s hearts, knowing the corruption of man in soon despising that which is common. And when He so wisheth reverence, shall man be careless of it?” And Attersoll: “We must do nothing that may make our ministry fruitless and bring it into contempt, but seek to adorn it and beautify it by all reverent carriage of ourselves in it, and in the discharge of the duties of it.” (b)
4. A faithful and dutiful spirit. Each one was required to do his own duty, not meddling with those of others. Their well-being, and even their very life, depended upon the faithful performance by each one of his own service (Numbers 4:15; Numbers 4:17-20). The progress, health, even the stability of human society are inseparable from a faithful discharge of the duties of the Christian ministry. Upon this point the testimony of history is unequivocal. (See remarks on this point on ch. Numbers 1:47; Numbers 1:54.)
(a) We all see and must confess, that an aged man, ripe in judgment and experience, is more fit for government than a younger, destitute of such mature wisdom and knowledge, be the place ecclesiastical or civil. Whereupon Silla said of Marius the younger, Debere juvenem prius remo quam gubernaculo admoveri. That a young man was first to be appointed to the oar and then to the stern. Fruit that is not ripe will serve so well neither for use nor store as ripe fruit will. The untimely fruit of a woman is a cause of grief, and not of comfort. The young fowls that are not fledged cannot fly, and green walls of any building should have no weight laid upon them till they were settled and sound. Non difficulter delectabit oratio magis ornata quam solida, etc. Sed difficillime ute oportet, docebit, etc. Easily may a speech that hath more beauty than substance please, but never so well teach as that which hath matter and substance in it. The one usually is the speech of young men, the other of elder. Look, saith Plutarch, how a dart differeth in his piercing, according to the strength of the arm that cast it, so differeth the word of a young and old man. The one cometh from a weaker strength, and so pierceth less; the other from a strong ability, and so entereth even through and through. The old man’s speech, saith the same author again, is like to a strong and sweet ointment, that filleth all the room with his sweetness.—Bishop Babington.
Ministers have oftentimes given unto them in the Scripture the name of Elders. Many titles are given unto them, and every one of them carrieth some instruction and admonition with it unto the conscience. They have not their names in vain, they are not idle sounds of vain words, but they offer the signification of some duty to be performed, and lead to the consideration of something to be practiced, as shepherds call to their remembrance to be busied in feeding; watchmen, to prove to them that they ought to have a vigilant care of the City of God; messengers, that they must not do their own business, but His that sent them. So they are called Elders. 1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Timothy 5:19; 1 Peter 5:1; Acts 14:23; Acts 15:2; Acts 16:4; Acts 20:17, to imprint and engrave in their hearts, the cogitation and consideration of the care, wisdom, sobriety, and stayedness that ought to be in men of that calling; all which gifts are for the most part proper to men of that age, for “days shall speak, and the multitude of years teach wisdom,” Job 32:7. And therefore they are resembled unto them, not because they are so always in age, but because they should be like unto them, and have the properties and qualities of them.—W. Attersoll.
(b) Would I describe a preacher, such as Paul,
Were he on earth, would hear, approve, and own—
Paul should himself direct me. I would trace
His master strokes, and draw from his design.
I would express him simple, grave, sincere;
In doctrine uncorrupt; in language plain,
And plain in manner; decent, solemn, chaste
And natural in gesture; much impressed
Himself, as conscious of His awful charge,
And anxious mainly that the flock he feeds
May feel it too; affectionate in look
And tender in address, as well becomes
A messenger of grace to guilty men.—Cowper.
DIVINE SECRETS AND HUMAN CURIOSITY
I. There are certain things in the universe which are hidden from man.
The vessels of the sanctuary were concealed from the Levites. To the priests them elves the Holy of holies was a secret place, into which they dare not enter. And even the high priest might enter therein only once a year, and that after careful and significant preparation. In these arrangements we have an illustration of the truths that there are certain realms in the universe which are accessible only to God, and certain things which are concealed from man. This is the case.
1. In the material universe. Nature has secrets the existence of which is not even conjectured by her most enthusiastic students, and mysterious provinces into which neither the most daring nor the most reverent enquirer can enter. (a)
2. In the arrangements of Providence. In the dealings of God with nations and with the race as a whole, there are inscrutable mysteries to us. In His dealings with us as families and as individuals, there are things the wisdom and love and righteousness of which we cannot discover—things which perplex, and sometimes confound and distress us. “Clouds and darkness are round about Him.” “Thy way is in the sea, and Thy path in the great waters, and Thy footsteps are not known.” “How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!”
3. In the economy of redemption. There are deepest, closest secrets here. We ask question after question, to which, at present, we receive no reply. “Great is the mystery of godliness,” etc., “Which things the angels desire to look into.”
4. In the character and contents of the future. “Thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” “Ye know not what shall be on the morrow.” Let us notice concerning these secrets that,
First: They are inevitable. “We are but of yesterday and know nothing, because our days upon the earth are as a shadow.” It is utterly unreasonable in suppose that we, with our limited faculties and brief existence, should comprehend the works and ways, the thoughts and utterances of the Infinite and Eternal. “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty to perfection?” Comp. Job 38-41.
Second: They are merciful. The intense light of a fuller and clearer revelation might, were it given, smite us with spiritual blindness. As cloud and shadow and darkness in nature are good for us, so the Divine reserve is good for us spiritually. What man is there of us who could bear the revelation of the scenes and events which await him and his dear friends in the future? (b)
Third: They are educational. Mysteries provoke enquiry; and reverent enquiry conduces to intellectual and spiritual growth. Wonderful are the discoveries of wisdom, and power, of righteousness, and love which God will make to His children in the endless hereafter. Let us be thankful for the Divine reserve. “We do amiss,” says Dr. Parker, “to stand before these sublime mysteries as we would stand before a vizored army of bloodthirsty foes. We should stand before them as before the veiled images of Love. They are Wisdom in disguise. They are Affection in shadow. They are Royalty in its royalest pomp.”
II. Men are prone to curiously pry into hidden things.
This is clearly implied in the careful and minute directions for covering the sacred furniture of the sanctuary, in the prohibition of the text, and in the stern penalty annexed to any breach of this prohibition. There is a sad tendency in human nature, as it now is, to curious enquiry concerning forbidden things. It has been well said by Monro: “Curiosity is a languid principle, where access is easy, and gratification immediate; remoteness and difficulty are powerful incentives to its vigorous and lasting operations.” In proportion as the secret things are regarded as mysterious, important, or sacred, will the strength of curiosity be in relation to them.
III. Irreverent prying into hidden things may lead to the most terrible results.
“They shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered” (or, “for an instant,” see Critical Notes), “lest they die.”
The curiosity of Eve concerning the fruit of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” led to the spiritual death of our first parents and their countless posterity. All curious enquiries as to sacred things, and irreverent pryings into Divine mysteries, tend to utterly destroy spirituality of mind and faith in the great Christian verities. “Curiosity,” says Fuller, “is a kernel of the forbidden fruit, which still sticketh in the throat of a natural man, sometimes to the danger of his choking.” Nor is it less perilous to the spiritually renewed man, leading, as it does, to the death of some of the highest and divinest things of the spirit. (c)
1. Guard against curiously enquiring into Divine secrets. It may be that some of these secrets are part of that ineffable glory into which no man can enter and live.
2. Be humble, seeing that we are surrounded by mysteries, countless and deep. Humility becometh the ignorant.
3. Be reverent in all our enquiries into Divine things. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him,” &c. “The meek will He guide in judgment,” &c. “Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes.”
4. Let us be diligent in the performance of our manifest duty. “If any man will do His will, He shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God,” etc.
(a) The eye can alight on no spot free from the presence of mystery. Questions may be asked concerning; a grass-blade or an insect, which no intellect could answer. Men know much about the outside of things, but of the interior organism of the universe, its fine balances, adaptations, springs, impulses, relationships, and purposes, they understand little or nothing. No intelligent being can observe the universe without knowing that it is a magnificent mystery. God has imposed silence upon it. In the thunder-road of the ocean we never hear the revelation of its mysteries. The whirlwind gives no account of its hidden way and unknown tabernacle. The glorious stars, in their nocturnal vigils ever shine, but never speak the mystery of their birth. Mysterious, indeed, are all things. Worlds suspended upon nothing, the calm, majestic roll of countless orbs, the dew of the morning, the glare of the lightning, the riven strata of the earth, the pulsation of unnumbered millions upon millions of hearts, the chequered history of life, the complicated workings and evolutions of intellect, all bespeak the power of a Mysterious, Dread Being, whose ways are unsearchable.—Joseph Parker, D.D.
(b) O heaven! that one might read the book of fate;
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent
(Weary of solid firmness) melt itself
Into the sea! and, other times, to see
The beachy girdle of the ocean,
Too wide for Neptune’s hips; how chances mock
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book, and sit him down and die.
Shakespeare. Second part of King Henry IV. III., I.
Were the time of our death foreseen, what a melancholy character would it impart to the pursuits and occupations of the human race! If every man saw the moment of his death continually before him, how would his thoughts be fixed to the fatal spot; and, upon its near approach, the consideration of it would probably absorb every other. With respect to our fellow-creatures, how would it poison the springs of enjoyment, were parents and children, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, able to calculate with certainty the period of each others’ lives! We should seem to be walking among the victims of death; the scenes of human existence would lose all cheerfulness, animation, and beauty. The interests of society would also sustain most serious injury. Many great and noble enterprises would never have been begun could the persons who, in the hope of life, engaged in them have foreseen that before they could be concluded, they themselves would be snatched away by the hand of death. Many discoveries, by which great benefit has been conferred on the world would not have been elicited. Few efforts probably would be made to attain any object, the consequences of which terminate with the life of the party, if he foresaw that they would be intercepted by death Who would venture to engage in any lucrative employment if he certainly knew that the benefit would not be even partially realized during the time of his mortal existence? But, happily for mankind, events are concealed—duties only are made known.—Rob. Hall, A.M.
(c) How notably again doth this commandment of hiding and folding them up, teach us to beware of curiosity in things not revealed. What God is pleased we should know, that safely we may search for and seek to know, but further we may not go. We must not have an ear to hear when God hath not a mouth to speak. To eat much honey, saith Solomon, is not good; and to search out curiously God’s Majesty is to endanger myself to be oppressed with His glory. Seek not out things which are too hard for thee, neither search the things rashly which are too mighty for thee, saith wise Sirach. But what God hath commanded thee, think of that with reverence, be not curious in many of His works: for it is not needful for thee to see with thine eyes the things that be secret. Be not curious in superfluous things, for many things are showed unto thee above the capacity of men. The meddling with such hath beguiled many, and an evil opinion hath deceived their judgment, Thou canst not see without eyes, profess not therefore the knowledge that thou hast not. Thales the philosopher gazed so upon the stars, that he fell into the ditch before him, and his maid mocked him. Seneca wisely complained, that a great part of our life was spent in doing nothing, a greater part in doing ill, and the greatest part of all in doing that which appertains not to us. This is curiosity in other men’s business, and foolish meddling with needless things. Socrates was wise, and said it wisely: “Quœ super nos, nihil ad nos; Matters that are above us belong not to us.” David, a man indeed with another light than Socrates had, professeth we know, as he was not high minded, neither had any proud looks; so he did not exercise himself in matters that were too high for him. But he did wean his soul, and keep it under even as a young child, &c. Bernard taxeth this foul fault in these words, “Multi student magis alta quam apta proferre: Many study to utter rather high matters than fit matters.” Let us avoid this fault.—Bishop Babington.
THE BURDENS OF LIFE
In these verses we have the Divine directions as to the service of the Ger-shonites and the Merarities. They present an instructive illustration of the burdens of human life. Regarding them in this light, they suggest concerning these burdens that they are—
I. Distributed to all men.
The Kohathites, Gershonites, and Merarites each had their service and burden. (See Numbers 4:19; Numbers 4:27; Numbers 4:32.) And “from thirty years old and upward until fifty years old” no man of either of these families was exempted from duty. “Aaron and his sons shall appoint them every one to his service and to his burden.” And now there is no human life in this would without its burden of some kind and degree. It is not simply those who are manifestly oppressed, or afflicted, or sorely tried, that have a burden to bear. Could we read the inner history of those whose life seems most pleasant and prosperous and favoured, we should doubtless find some secret sorrow, or wearing anxiety, or life-long disappointment. There is no sunshine without its shadow, no happy family without its trial or sorrow, and no individual life without its burden of some kind or other. “Every individual experience,” says Dr. Huntington, “has, soon or late, its painful side, its crucial hours, when there is darkness over all the land, and we cry out to know if God has forsaken us. For the time, longer or shorter, we taste only the bitter, and feel only the thorns. The separations of death, the distance between our aspiration and performance, unsatisfied ambition, labouring year after year in vain, affection returned by indifference, the symptoms of fatal disease, formerenergy prostrate, a friend alienated, a child depraved, an effort to do good construed into an impertinence,—unconquerable obstacles that we cannot measure and can scarcely speak of, heaped up against our best designs—these are some of the most frequent shapes of the misery; but no list is full. The one essential thing is that the will is crossed, crucified. Character is everywhere put into this school of suffering.” (a)
II. Distributed variously.
All men are burdened, but all are not alike burdened. The burdens of human life—
1. Differ in kind.—The burden of the Kohathites consisted of “the most holy things,” the furniture of the sanctuary; that of the Gershonites, of the hanging, curtains, and coverings of the tabernacle, with “their cords, and all the instruments of their service;” and that of the Merarites, of the pillars, boards, bars, sockets, and the more solid parts of the tabernacle. So the burdens of human life are of various kinds. Some labour under a great load of temporal poverty, others suffer more or less throughout their entire life by reason of bodily afflictions, the burden of others is some crushing family trial, of others some sore and secret sorrow, and of others some profound and painful longing which finds no satisfaction, &c.
2. Differ in degree. The burden of the Merarites was much heavier than that of either the Kohathites or Gershonites. And the burdens of men now are Dot alike in weight. Some are much more heavily laden than others. All good men are not tried so severely as Job was. The Lord Jesus Himself bore the heaviest burden of all. As compared with His, our heaviest load is light. And comparing the burdens of men one with another, some appear almost free, while others labour under a heavy load.
By Divine direction Aaron and his sons were to appoint to each one his burden. (See Numbers 4:19; Numbers 4:27; Numbers 4:32.) In the case of the Merarites the direction as to this appointment was very explicit: “By name ye shall reckon the instruments of the charge of their burden.” “This direction, which occurs only in reference to the charge of the Merarites, imports apparently that ‘the instruments’ were to be assigned, no doubt, by Ithamar and his immediate assistants, to their bearers singly, and nominatim. These instruments comprised the heavier parts of the Tabernacle; and the order seems intended to prevent individual Merarites choosing their own burden, and so throwing more than the proper share on others.”—Speaker’s Comm. The burdens of human life do not fall by chance or accident. God is not the Author of the burdens which oppress human life. Pain and poverty, sorrow and trial, are the offspring of sin. But God regulates the burdens of men. No trial befalls us without His permission, and He determines the extent and severity of every trial. (Comp. Job 1:12; Job 2:6.) “Thou art my God. My times are in Thy hand.” “He shall choose our inheritance for us.” The Divine regulation of trial affords a guarantee that no man shall be overburdened; for the Lord knoweth how much we can bear; He knoweth us altogether, and He has promised to bestow grace adequate to our need. “As thy days so shall thy strength be.” “My grace is sufficient for thee,” &c. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able,” &c.
“God will keep his own anointed;
Nought shall harm them, none condemn;
All their trials are appointed;
All must work for good to them:
All shall help them
To their heavenly diadem.”—Lyte.
Our text further suggests that the Burdens of Life should be—
IV. Patiently borne.
We do not read of any murmuring amongst the Levites because of the duties assigned to any of them. Each one appears to have accepted his allotted service, and performed its duties. Let each one of us learn to bear his life-burden without murmuring, to accept his lot in life cheerfully, to do his duty faithfully.
1. God regulates our burden, let us therefore be content under it. (b)
2. God sanctifies our burden to most blessed ends let us therefore be thankful. “We glory in tribulation also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience,” &c. “Count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience,” etc. (c)
3. God will soon deliver us from our burden, let us therefore be hopeful. “The time will come,” says Babington, “that our God will free us, and then we shall receive an eternal reward. Remember what you read: The Lord God of Israel, saith David, hath given rest unto His people, that they may dwell in Jerusalem for ever, and the Levites shall no more bear the Tabernacle, and all the vessels for the service thereof. So shall it be said one day of you, of me, of all the members of the Lord’s body. The Lord hath given rest, and we shall no more carry our burdens and portions of woe in this world, but live in the heavenly Jerusalem for ever. O, wished rest, and ten thousand times welcome when God is pleased! Do men fear a safe harbour in a mighty storm? Do men grieve to come home to their own houses after a long and painful journey? No, no, we know; and no more should we shrink to find heavenly rest.”
(a) What is included in the term burden? Whatever makes right living, according to the law of God, difficult to a sincere man that is a burden. Whatever thing within or without a man, in his nature, in his habits, or in his circumstances, makes it hard for him to live purely and rightly—that is included in this term burden. It may be in his mental constitution; it may be in his bodily health; it may be in the habits of his education; it may be in his relation to worldly affairs; it may be in his domestic circumstances; it may be in his peculiar liabilities to temptation and sin. It includes the whole catalogue of conditions, and influences, and causes, that weigh men down, and hinder them, when they are endeavouring to live lives of rectitude—H. W. Beecher.
To-day I had a long and strange interview with a lady who has recently become a member of the congregation.… She asked me if I had ever known a case of trial so severe as hers. “Yes,” I replied, “numbers; it is the case of all. Suffering is very common, so is disappointment.” “Are our affections to be all withered?” “Very often, I believe.” “Then why were they given me?” “I am sore I cannot tell you that, but I suppose it would not have been very good for you to have bad it all your own way?” “Then do you think I am better for this blighting succession of griefs?” “I do not know, but I know you ought to be.” ‘Wordsworth’ was lying open on the table, and I pointed to her these lines:—“Then was the truth received into my heart, That under heaviest sorrow earth can bring, If from the affliction somewhere do not grow, Honour, which could not else have been a faith, An elevation and a sanctity; If new strength be not given nor old restored, The blame is ours, not nature’s.” The deep undertone of this world is sadness a solemn bass occurring at measured intervals, and heard through all other tones. Ultimately, all the strains of this world’s music resolve themselves into that tone; and I believe that, rightly felt, the Cross, and the Cross alone, interprets the mournful mystery of life—the sorrow of the Highest, the Lord of Life; the result of error and sin, but ultimately remedial, purifying, and exalting.—F. W. Robertson, M.A., Life and Letters.
(b) Contentation (i.e. contentment) is a ready and approved medicine for all miseries and maladies whatsoever. No man is troubled with any grief or disease, but he is most willing to hear of a salve for it. This is sovereign for this purpose. It easieth the burden of all afflictions, it taketh away the smart of all sores; it poureth oil and wine into our wounds, and of half dead it maketh us alive again; it maketh a rough way plain and crooked things straight. It casteth down high hills, and maketh the path easy before us. It turneth outward wants into inward comforts. It maketh the bond to be free, the poor to be rich, the sick to be whole, the miserable to be happy, and such as are owners of nothing to be lords of all things. Give an hearty draught of this strong drink to him that is ready to perish, and a cup of this wine to him that hath an heavy heart, it will make him forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more. This we see in the Apostle Paul, he had drunk of the wine of contentation, (2 Corinthians 6:9-10) and therefore saith, “As unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”—W. Attersoll.
(c) “I know,” is all the mourner saith,
“Knowledge by suffering entereth,
And life is perfected by death;
“I am content to touch the brink
Of pain’s dark goblet, and I think
My bitter drink a wholesome drink.
“I am content to be so weak;
Put strength into the words I speak,
For I am strong in what I seek.
“I am content to be so bare
Before the archers; everywhere
My wounds being stroked by heavenly air.
“Glory to God—to God.” he saith;
“Knowledge by suffering entereth,
And life is perfected by death.”
Burdens are not pleasant; yet they are profitable. They develop strength. The only way to make strong men is to impose burdens that require strength; then if they have the substance in them, it will come out. We know a man who has been struggling for years to escape from business cares, yet they have accumulated upon him. Every measure of relief has brought additional work and sometimes extreme trial. But he has risen in power as the load was increased, and he has grown to be a man of might. Those who run flinch, dodge, faint, as crushing cares increase, are broken and suffer loss; but those who stand, fight, tug, hold on and cry to God, grow strong. It is a misfortune always to have an easy time, a blessing to have work to do which taxes all our powers and then taxes more and more.—The Study.
THE IMPORTANCE OF LITTLE THINGS
In the charge of Merari we find not only the heaviest things and most cumbersome, but also some little things which are specially mentioned. “Their pins, and their cords, with all their instruments, and with all their service; and by name ye shall reckon the instruments of the charge of their burden.” It is upon these little things that we would fix attention. From the fact that we have here Divine directions concerning such small things as “pins and cords,” we infer the importance of little things. The following considerations will help us to realise this.
I. The completeness and perfection of great things is impossible apart from due attention to little things.
These “pins and cords” were essential to the completeness of the tabernacle. By tiny and delicate touches the enchanting beauty of the painting is achieved. By scrupulous attention to details the greatest inventions have been brought to successful issues. A wise economy in small expenses has had no little to do in many instances in the accumulation of great wealth. “An onlooker, observing the slight taps given to a statue by Canova, spoke as if he thought the artist to be trifling, but was rebuked by this reply: “The touches which you ignorantly hold in such small esteem are the very things which make the difference between the failure of a bungler and the chef d’œuvre of a master.”
II. The most important issues sometimes depend upon what seem to us slight circumstances.
Trivial incidents sometimes appear to constitute the great turning points in life. How often in the life of Joseph, as we view it to-day, events of incalculable importance depended upon what men call “the merest chance,” or the most trivial incident! What stupendous issues depend upon the preservation of the imperilled life of that goodly child in his frail ark of bulrushes on the Nile! A remarkable illustration of our point occurs in the life of the distinguished F. W. Robertson. He had a passionate enthusiasm for military life, had chosen the army as his profession, and was studying for it, and application had been made to the Horse Guards for a commission for him. “To two great objects,” says his biographer—“the profession of arms which he had chosen, and the service of Christ in that profession—he now devoted himself wholly.” The circumstances which led him to abandon that profession for the calling of the Christian minister are remarkable. This result was brought about by the influence of the Rev. Mr. Davies, who thus relates the origin of their friendship:—“The daughter of Lady French, at whose house I met my friend, had been seriously ill. She was prevented from sleeping by the barking of a dog in one of the adjoining houses. This house was Captain Robertson’s. A letter was written to ask that the dog might be removed; and so kind and acquiescent a reply was returned, that Lady French called to express her thanks. She was muck struck at that visit by the manner and bearing of the eldest son, and, in consequence an intimacy grew up between the families.” Mr. Robertson himself thus refers to this matter:—“If I bad not met a certain person, I should not have changed my profession; if I had not known a certain lady, I should not probably have met this person; if that lady had not had a delicate daughter who was disturbed by the barking of my dog; if my dog had not barked that night, I should now have been in the dragoons, or fertilising the soil of India. Who can say that these things were not ordered, and that, apparently, the merest trifle did not produce failure and a marred existence?” (“Failure and a marred existence”—so it seemed to him then. But how very different it really was! How different must it appear to him now!) Such slight circumstances, apparently, led to his entering upon the career of a Christian minister—a career so rich in the highest results. (a)
III. Life itself is composed almost entirely of little things.
Great events and noteworthy experiences are very rare things in life. Day after day we live in the performance of small duties, amidst ordinary circumstances and events. With the exception of a very few remarkable events, our life is made up of the most ordinary and common-place, and apparently, unimportant things. And yet life itself, as a whole, is a thing of utterly unspeakable importance, most momentous in its character, its influence, its capabilities, &c.
IV. Character, which to each of us is the most important thing, is formed almost entirely of littles.
“Character,” says Beecher, “is no a massive unit; it is a fabric rather. It is an artificial whole made up by the interply of ten thousand threads. Every faculty is a spinner, spinning every day its threads, and almost every day threads of a different colour. Myriads and myriads of webbed products proceed from the many active faculties of the human soul, and character is made up by the weaving together of all these innumerable threads of daily life. Its strength is not merely in the strength of some simple unit, but in the strength of numerous elements.” The great Williams of Wern, when preaching at Bala, where many women are employed in knitting stockings, inquired, “How is character formed?” “Gradually,” he replied, “just as you Bala women knit stockings—a stitch at a time.” (b)
1. Be careful as to the little things of personal character and conduct. “Let us not neglect little duties, let us not allow ourselves in little faults. What ever we may like to think, nothing is really of small importance that affects the soul. All diseases are small at the beginning. Many a death-bed begins with a ‘little cold.’ Nothing that can grow is large all at once; the greatest sin must have a beginning. Nothing that is great comes to perfection in a day; characters and habits are all the result of little actions. Little strokes made the ark which saved Noah. Little pins held firm the tabernacle which was the glory of Israel. We, too, are travelling through a wilderness. Let us be like the family of Merari, and be careful not to leave the pins behind.”
Let us beware of small sins, (c)
Let us be faithful in small duties, (d)
2. Be careful as to the little things of church life and work. Let the most feeble member of the Church do the work for which he is fitted faithfully. Let not the least or lowliest duty be neglected, or the welfare and prosperity of the whole will be thereby injured. When all the members of the Church—the least gifted and the most gifted—are faithful in life and work; and when every duty—the least as well as the greatest—is faithfully performed, great will be her prosperity and her power.
(a) Where God in generous fulness dwells,
Nor small nor great is known;
He paints the tiniest floweret-cells
O’er emerald meadows strewn;
And sees, but not with kinder eyes,
The heavens grow rich with sunset dyes;
Both ministrant to beauty’s sense,
Both signs of one Omnipotence.
He comes not forth with pageant grand
His marvels to perform.
A cloud “the bigness of a hand”
Can blacken heaven with storm.
A grain of dust, if he arrange,
The fortunes of a planet change.
An insect reef can overwhelm
The stately navies of a realm.
There are no trifles. Arks as frail
As bore God’s prince of old,
On many a buoyant Nils stream sail
The age’s heirs to hold.
From Jacob’s love on Joseph shed,
Came Egypt’s wealth and Israel’s bread;
From Ruth’s chance gleaning in the corn,
The Psalmist sang,—the Christ was born.
W. M. Punshon.
(b) Have you ever watched an icicle as it formed? You noticed how it froze one drop at a time, until it was a foot long or more. If the water was clear, the icicle remained clear, and sparkled brightly in the sun; but if the water was but slightly muddy, the icicle looked foul, and its beauty was spoiled. Just so our characters are forming: one little thought or feeling at a time adds its influence. If each thought be pure and right, the soul will be lovely, and sparkle with happiness; but if impure and wrong, there will be deformity and wretchedness.—Temperance Anecdotes, in Dict. of lllust.
(c) Little things are seeds of great ones. Little cruelties are gems of great ones. Little treacheries are, like small holes in raiment, the beginning of large ones. Little dishonesties are like the drops that work through the bank of the river; a drop is an engineer: it tunnels a way for its fellows, and they, rusting, prepare for all behind them. A worm in a ship’s plank proves, in time, wores than a cannon-ball.—H. W. Beecher.
(d) Let us be content to work,
To do the thing we can, and not presume
To fret because it’s little. ‘Twill employ
Seven men, they say, to make a perfect pin.
Who makes the head consents to miss the point;
Who makes the point agrees to leave the head;
And if a man should cry, “I want a pin,
And I must make it straightway, head and point,”
His wisdom is not worth the pin he wants.
Elizabeth B. Browning.
PROPORTION BETWEEN NUMBER AND SERVICE
In these verses we have the account of the numbering of the Levites for active service, according to the command given unto Moses and Aaron in Numbers 4:1-3. The result here recorded is this: Of males from thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old, there were of Kohathites 2,750; of Gershonites, 2,630; and of Merarites, 3,200, making a total of 8,580. This number bears a just proportion to that of all the males of the Levites from a month old and upward, which was 22,000. “But the number of Merarites available for the sacred service bears an unusually large proportion to the total number of males of that family, which is (Numbers 3:34) 6,200. Looking at the relation of the numbers to the service required of them we discover illustrations of—
I. The Wisdom of God.
“By this diversity of numbers among the Levite families,” saith Trapp, “God showeth His wisdom, saith an interpreter, in fitting men for the work, whereunto He hath appointed them, whether it requireth multitude or gifts. ‘For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom,’ etc. (1 Corinthians 12:8-12). It is reported that in Luther’s house was found written, ‘Res et verba Phillipus, res sine verbis Lutherus, verba sine re Erasmus, Melancthon hath both matter and words; Luther hath matter but wants words; Erasmus hath words, but wants matter.’ Every one hath his own share; all are not alike gifted.” M. Henry: “The Merarites were but 6,200 in all, and yet of these there were 3,200 serviceable men, that is, more than half. The greatest burden lay upon that family, the boards and pillars and sockets; and God so ordered it that, though they were the fewest in number, yet they should have the most able men among them; for whatever service God calls men to He will furnish them for it, and give strength in proportion to the work, grace sufficient.” God’s appointments to service are ever made in perfect wisdom. There are ever a fitness and proportion between the workers and the work. (a)
II. The reasonableness of the Divine requirements.
“Though the sum total of effective Levites,” says Greenfield, “was very small compared with that of the other tribes; yet they would be far more than could be employed at once in this service. But they might carry by turns and ease one another, and thus do the whole expeditiously and cheerfully. They would also have their own tents to remove, and their own families to take care of.” There was an ample number for the performance of the work; and its distribution amongst so many would render it comparatively easy to everyone. God’s claims upon us and our service are in the highest degree reasonable. He is a kind and gracious Master. “His yoke is easy and His burden is light.” And if He summon us to difficult tasks, He will increase our wisdom and strength, so we shall not be overmatched. “As thy days so shall thy strength be.” “My grace is sufficient for thee.” “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (b)
We have also in this section of the history an illustration of—
III. The exemplary obedience of the servants of the Lord.
We see how carefully and faithfully Moses and Aaron carried out the directions which they received from Him. In this they are an example to us. (See notes and illustrations bearing on this point given on chaps. Numbers 2:34; Numbers 3:16.)
(a) God’s wisdom appears in the various inclinations and conditions of men. As there is a distinction of several creatures, and several qualities in them, for the common good of the world, so among men there are several inclinations and several abilities, as donatives from God, for the common advantage of human society; as several channels cut out from the same river run several ways, and refresh several soils, one man is qualified for one employment, another marked out by God for a different work, yet all of them fruitful to bring in a revenue of glory to God, and a harvest of profit to the rest of mankind. How unuseful would the body be if it had but “one member” (1 Corinthians 12:19)! How unprovided would a house be if it had not vessels of dishonour as well as of honour! The corporation of mankind would be as much a chaos as the matter of the heavens and the earth was before it was distinguished by several forms breathed into it at the creation. Some are inspired with a particular genius for one art, some for another; every man hath a distinct talent. If all were husbandmen where would be the instruments to plough and reap? If all were artificers where would they have corn to nourish themselves? All men are like vessels, and parts in the body, designed for distinct offices and functions for the good of the whole. As the variety of gifts in the Church is a fruit of the wisdom of God for the preservation and increase of the Church, so the variety of inclinations and employments in the world is a fruit of the wisdom of God for the preservation and subsistence of the world by mutual commerce.—Charnocke.
(b) Power is the measure of obligation. It is the circumference that bounds every line, starting from the centre of duty. What we cannot do, we are not bound to attempt. The command that outstrips our capacity is no law to us. Why is religion not binding on brutes? God is as truly their Creator and Sustainer as He is ours—they have not the power. Our faculties are adequate to the Divine will respecting us. They are made for it—made to it. The sun is not more nicely adjusted to the work of lighting the planets—the rolling atmosphere to the purposes of life—these bodies to all the laws, influences, and sceneries of this material universe—than are all the powers of the soul adjusted to the work of worship. To trace effects to causes, to discern moral distinctions, to reverence greatness, to love excellence, to praise goodness—these are the sacred functions of religion; and whilst that seraph, glowing with rapture in the full sunlight of the Eternal, can perform nothing higher, that human babe, gazing for the first time with wonder at the stars, has ample powers to do the same.—D. Thomas, D.D.
The whole relation of discipleship is a relation of liberty. No one goes to his duty because he must, but only because his heart is in it. His inclinations are that way, for his heart is in the Master’s love, and he follows Him gladly. It, no doubt, seems to you when you look on, only as strangers to Christ, that this must be a hard and dry service, for you see no attraction in it. But the reason is that your heart is not in it. With a new heart, quickened by the grace of Christ, all this would be changed. It will then seem wholly attractive. All the currents of your love will run that way, and the freest freedom of your nature will be to go after Christ. No sacrifice will be hard—no service a burden. The wonder now will be that all men do not rush in after Christ to be His eager followers.—H. Bushnell, D.D.
“In service which Thy love appoints,
There are no bonds for me;
My secret heart is taught the truth
That makes Thy children free.
A life of self-renouncing love
Is one of liberty.”—Waring.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Numbers 4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26