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Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 1

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verse 1

Numbers 1:1

In the wilderness of Sinai.

In the desert: an illustration of the life of the good in this world

The natural trials of the desert.

1. Barrenness. Temporal and material things cannot satisfy spiritual beings.

2. Homelessness. The soul cannot find rest in this wilderness world.

3. Pathlessness. Man, if left to himself, is bound to stray and lose himself.

4. Perilousness. The wiles of the devil, the seductions of the world, and the lusts of the flesh.

5. Aimlessness. The years pass, opportunities come and go, and so little seems accomplished, so little progress made in our character, so little true work done.

The divine presence in the desert.

1. Divine communication in the desert. God’s voice is never silent. He is ever speaking in the sounds and silences of nature; through Scripture; and by His Holy Spirit.

2. Divine provision in the desert. “The Lord will give grace and glory; no good will He withhold from them that walk uprightly.” “Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.” “My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

3. Divine shelter and rest in the desert (Psalms 90:1).

4. Divine direction in the desert.

(1) By the leadings of His providence.

(2) By the teachings of the sacred Scriptures.

(3) By the influences of the Holy Spirit.

5. Divine protection in the desert. “No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper.” “If God be for us, who can be against us?” “Who is he that will harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good?”


1. That the generation of slaves might pass away. There is much in us that must die and be buried before we can enter upon the inheritance of spiritual perfection. Our craven-hearted fears, our carnal lusts, our miserable unbelief, must be buried in the desert.

2. That a generation of free men might be educated. In the desert we are being trained by God into spiritual perfection and power for service and blessedness.


1. Ponder well the Divine design of our life in this world.

2. By the help of God seek its realisation in ourselves. (W. Jones.)

Verses 2-3

Numbers 1:2-3

Take ye the sum of all the congregation.

Reasons for numbering the people

Not because God would understand whether they were sufficient for number, or able for strength, to encounter their enemies, forasmuch as nothing is unknown to Him or impossible for Him to bring to pass, who is able to save as well with a few as with many.

1. For order’s sake: that there should be no occasion of contention for primacy, but that every tribe and family should know his place and time, when to remove and when to stand still, when to fight with their enemies, and in every point what to do.

2. That such things as were to be paid for the use of the tabernacle might the more easily be collected when they were separated according to their tribes, and the tribes according to their families, and the families according to the household, man by man.

3. To testify His exceeding great love toward them and special care over them. A faithful shepherd will many times count the sheep committed to him, lest any should be missing.

4. Lastly, they are severally and distinctly numbered every tribe by itself, that in time to come it might be certainly known of what tribe and family Christ Jesus, the promised Messiah, should be born. (W. Attersoll.)

Reasons for the census taking:

1. To prove the accomplishment of the promise made to Abraham, that God would multiply his seed exceedingly; and renewed in Jacob (Genesis 28:14). Now it appears that there did not fail one tittle of that good promise, which was an encouragement to, them to hope that the other promise of the land of Canaan for an inheritance should always be fulfilled in its season. Therefore God would have Israel numbered, that it might be upon record how vastly they were increased in a little time, that the power of God’s providence and the truth of His promise may be acknowledged by all. It could not have been expected, in any ordinary course of nature, that seventy-five souls (which was the number of Jacob’s family when he went down into Egypt): should in two hundred and fifteen years multiply to so many hundred thousands. It is therefore to be attributed to an extraordinary virtue in the Divine promise and blessing.

2. It was to put a difference between the true-born Israelites and the mixed multitude that were among them. None were numbered but Israelites. All the world is but a lumber in comparison with those jewels. Little account is made of others; but the saints God has a particular property in and concern for (2 Timothy 2:19; Philippians 4:3). The hairs of their head are numbered; but He will say to others, “I never knew you, never made any account of you.”

3. It was in order to their being marshalled into several districts, for the more easy administration of justice, and their more regular march through the wilderness. It is a rout and a rabble, not an army, that is not mustered and put in order. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

Israel’s host mustered:

1. The order for this enumeration is Divine. God gave the order, and He appointed the men who should fulfil it. It may be asked, Why does the Lord now sanction the doing of this work, and in the subsequent ages curs David for doing, substantially, the same thing? The answer is twofold: First, it was not the Lord, but Satan, who tempted David to number Israel; and, secondly, it was done for the gratification of David’s personal pride and ambition. Further, it may be said, this was done against the protest of the general-in-chief of his armies (see 1 Chronicles 21:3-4). When God commands it is always safe to obey; but when Satan incites us we are to beware. There are several reasons why God commanded this muster-roll to be made now.

(1) The promise had been made to Abraham of an exceeding great multiplication of his seed. It was now designed that they should see how this promise had been fulfilled, even amid the heartless bondage of Egypt.

(2) This He demanded should be done carefully and certainly. There is nothing easier than to miscalculate numbers, especially where the basis of reckoning is careless. Here He orders this to be done by an individual count.

(3) It was only those who were able to go forth to war who were numbered. The blind, the lame, the diseased, and the aged were not enrolled. It is the Lord’s plan in all the ages, never to ask a man to do what he is incompetent to perform. On the other hand, He expects every one to do all he is able to do. The men selected for this enrolment were “renowned men.” Heads of their families and their tribes--princes in Israel. Sometimes the great, the wealthy, and the wise attempt to excuse themselves from the service of God. They are too much busied with their own concerns. But there are those who wear crowns and coronets who do pray and labour in Christ’s cause. They are worthy standard-bearers in the army of the Lord. Like Queen Victoria and Lord Shaftesbury, like Coligny and Conde, like the electors of Germany in the time of the Reformation, they stand forth doing the Lord’s will, and accomplishing His purposes. We see here, further, with what quickness and promptness this work was done. It would seem as if only a few days were consumed in doing a work so vast. Thus when God calls us to do His work there is to be no delay. “The King’s business requires haste.” No one has a right to be an indifferent or idle worker. Another thought here: only Israelites were to be mustered. No one of the mixed multitude is to be put upon the rolls, They could not be intrusted on the army-rolls. They were more ready for a ferment than for a fight. No wonder that the immortal Washington, on an occasion of great importance and peril, said, “Put no one but Americans on guard to-night.” So God would not allow any one but His own people to fight His, battles, or to do His work. In the numeric record Judah is found to have the largest number of men. “This deserves notice in connection with the blessing pronounced on that tribe in Genesis 49:8-12, ‘Thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise.’” Judah was the grand leader of all the princes and tribes of Israel. God designed that He should be so, as his was the tribe from which Immanuel was to come. The whole number was six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty. With three exceptions, Russia, Germany, and France, this is larger than the regular army of any nation now on the face of the globe. Of court, the war-footing of many other nations is greater than this; but this is an amazing regular army for that day and age. But, vast as it was, it was all swallowed up in thirty-eight years from this time, because of unbelief and sin. Only two of this great number escaped the general destruction; namely, Caleb and Joshua. So multitudes who profess to be soldiers in the Lord’s army are wasted by death or become inefficient and useless. One of the great defects in all our Churches is want of organisation. Herein were the beauty and the strength of this mustering. The Levites, however, were exempted from this enrolment. In all ages the priestly caste of men has been generally free from war-service; so the Levites, by the appointment of God, were free. To them were committed the spiritual interests of the tribes, the worship and service of God, the offering of sacrifices, and the expounding of the law. “They warred the warfare of the tabernacle.” So we think no minister should be a soldier, a lawyer, a physician, a business man, or a farmer. He cannot do these things without lowering the standard of his calling and materially injuring his efficiency. (Lewis R. Dunn, D. D.)

The numbering of the people (a homily for the census day)

A few words about the census, which is being taken to-day in every town, every hamlet, every remote habitation of the United Kingdom. The Israelites dealt largely in statistics. At all the great turning-points in their history a census was taken. This Book of Numbers owes its name to the fact that it records two census-takings; one at the beginning, the other at the close of the forty years’ sojourn in the wilderness. An admonition to fill up the census-papers with exactness and for conscience’ sake.

Meditations proper to the census day.

1. The filling up of a census-paper is, in itself, a piece of secular business. Yet I do not envy the man who can perform it without being visited with holy feeling. The setting down of the names of one’s household brings up many tragic memories. The setting down one’s own age, after a lapse of ten years, summons us to count our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.

2. The Lord keeps an exact register of His people. There is a Book of Life in which are inscribed the names of all whom He has chosen. How true this is the whole Scripture bears witness (Exodus 32:30; Isaiah 4:3; Ezekiel 13:9; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 13:8). We commonly think of this as a book which is shut and sealed. The Lord only knoweth them that are His. A man may ascertain his own acceptance with God. (W. Binnie, D. D.)

The numbering of the people:

. The authority for this numbering. Leaders of men should be well assured of two things in the movements which they inaugurate--

1. That they have the Divine approval of their undertakings. The movement which is approved by God, and well prosecuted, shall advance to splendid triumph.

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

The place of this numbering. “In the wilderness of Sinai.”

1. In a desert.

(1) Privation.

(2) Peril.

(3) Perplexity.

2. In a desert where the tabernacle of God was.

The time of this numbering. Exactly one month after the setting up of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:2; Exodus 40:17) and about eleven months from the time of their arrival in the desert of Sinai. The people abode in this desert nearly a whole year (comp. Exodus 19:1 with Numbers 1:1; Numbers 10:11). What was the reason of this protracted halt? That they might be instructed in their relations to God and to each other; that they might learn lessons of duty and worship; that they might be taught to reverence and obey God. There are times and circumstances in which standing still is the speediest advance.

THE MANNER OF THIS NUMBERING. They were to take account of--

1. Only the males.

2. Only the males above twenty years old.

3. Only the males above twenty years old who were in vigorous health--“able to go forth to war.”

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

5. The numbering was to be individual, and by name.

The census was minute.

(1) The Lord chooses fit instruments for the accomplishment of His purposes.

(2) The Lord is perfectly acquainted with every one who is fitted for His work.

The design of this numbering.

1. The organisation of the army.

2. To manifest the Divine faithfulness.

3. To show the Divine power.

4. To the promotion of order.

5. To exhibit, on the coming of the Messiah, the correspondence of the event with the predictions concerning it.

6. To illustrate the care of God for His people generally and particularly. The Lord’s care over His people is most minute and constant and tender. (W. Jones.)

The numbered people:

1. In common matters men count possessions, which are choice and dear and prized. They whose mean joys are fixed on this world’s pelf thus calculate their gold. Their coffers are oft opened. Do we, then indulge unfounded fancy when in God’s numbering we read God’s love? Do not clear characters here write that His people are thus numbered because loved--counted, because prized?

2. Who are numbered? The young, the weak, the female, stand apart. None are enrolled but they whose age and strength enable them for war. Christ’s service is a mighty work, a determined fight. About a year has passed since the last numbering of this family. The Levites then formed part of the collected mass. They are not now included. They stand apart, a separate portion. But mark a wondrous fact. The number then and now amounts exactly to the same. Israel has surrendered Levi’s tribe, but Israel’s forces are not thereby less. We never lose by giving to the Lord.

3. Once more survey the numbered people. You are inclined to say this band will safely reach the promised land. Surely their willing steps will ever run in the appointed way. Alas! two, and two only, steadfastly adhere. Ah, unbelief! It is the sin of sins, the misery of miseries, the hopeless malady, the death of souls, the bar which shuts out Christ. (Dean Law.)

Counting mercies and days:

We may again learn of these gracious numberings of His people to number often with ourselves His mercies vouchsafed unto us, that we may send up thankful thoughts to His majesty for them. Such an holy numbering used Jacob when he said, “O Lord, with my staff came I over this river, and now I return with much wealth.” How many great men, of all callings, may thus number God’s favour towards them since their first beginning, in cities and towns, where little stocks have grown to great sums. What a fit meditation is this? and how shall the Lord like this kind of numbering? We may also remember what the Psalm says, and learn to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. But you may say this numbering was restrained to the Jews, and even so was God’s love, in some sort, for a time. But when Christ came, then there went out a decree from Augustus Caesar that all the world should be taxed, which could not be without numbering of them. And therefore by Christ the partition-wall is broken down, and the comforts of God’s numbering of them imparted to us, and to be approved by us to our joy, praying with him that so prayed, “Grant, good Lord, that in Thy numberings of Thy people I may be ever one.” (Bp. Babington.)

The census paper:

The census paper may be, by God’s blessing, the means of bringing home some very telling facts. You, who are going to sign it, are ten years older than when last a similar paper lay before you. Ten years gone! gone for ever! Is not this something to make you thoughtful? The census papers will show what increase and progress has been made throughout the country. Mark this. There is no idea of failure or decrease. Can you show marks of Christian progress as clear? Whether you have prospered in your everyday work or not, enjoyed health and happiness, or had to bear sickness, disappointment, and even bereavement--in any case have you, as if forgetful of the past, still kept “pressing forward” for the prize of your high calling in Christ Jesus? Is there no decrease, no failure? You will write down your Christian name, condition, and profession. Your Christian name! Many a man’s name is his character. There are names which in every rank, profession, business, and trade, are coupled with skill, courage, honesty, and truth: their names are, as it were, registered in the book of greatness. There is a book in which the names of Christians are registered (Philippians 4:3). Is your Christian name entered there? Does your Christian name suggest before God and His angels, to your neighbour, and yourself, a Christian character. Perhaps your condition has not altered. You are still what you were ten years ago: Have all who are under your roof learnt to see in you a kind friend, a good father or mother, a forbearing master or mistress, a steward conscious that you must give account to God of the duties and responsibilities of your trust? Perhaps it has altered. You have married, and children have been granted to you. Have you been, and are you, a true Christian parent, caring for the souls of your children as well as their bodies, training them by your words and example for Heaven? Or, perhaps, the last ten years have been full of sadness to you. You are now a widow or widower, an orphan, or childless, a lone being. Have you learnt, though the heart was torn, to look up to the Father in heaven who chastens with suffering all whom He loves? And does the question the census paper asks you about your profession suggest no similar question about your Christian profession? Are you careful never to say or do anything which will bring discredit upon that profession? Do you watch the thoughts of your heart, that nothing base, or impure, or careless, shall enter in to dwell there? In the Book of the Revelation, Christians are taught that “all, small and great, shall stand before God and be judged out of those things written in the books, according to their works.” Then will be the great census; the names, ages, conditions, and professions of all will be known.

Able to go forth to war.

The lawfulness of war

. This teacheth us that A godly man may lawfully be a warrior. If war were not in itself lawful, God would never have a muster taken of such as are able to bear arms. True, every good profession may be abused. Abraham is said to be the father of the faithful, yet he made war, and overthrew the enemies that had spoiled Sodom, and carried away the riches of it as a prey, and was not reproved of Melchizedeck, the priest of the living God, but refreshed together with his army. The like we might say of Moses, Joshua, the Judges, and other godly kings, who fought many battles by the commandment of the Lord. When the soldiers heard the preaching of John, the forerunner of Christ, they asked him what they must do; he did not dissuade them from war, but gave them directions how to behave themselves in that honourable profession. Neither did Peter, being sent for to come to Cornelius, command him to follow a new trade of life. Neither did Paul persuade Sergius Paulus, the deputy, a prudent man, to renounce that calling, which no doubt they would have done if the profession of chivalry had not stood with the profession of Christianity.

The reasons to confirm this truth.

1. God doth command it, and therefore doth allow it as just and lawful.

2. As God gave direct commandment, so the people of God going forth to battle were to call upon Him for a blessing, and to sanctify the work by prayer, and in doing so have been heard. Things in their own nature unlawful are so filthy that no invocation of God’s name can cleanse them; nay, they make such prayer foul and abominable. Seeing, therefore, God blesseth and delivereth such as go to war, it must needs follow that war and true religion may well stand together, so that one and the same man may be both a warrior and yet religious. (W. Attersoll.)

Able to fight:

Then there were some who were not able. There were some who were not designed for military pursuits. The Lord would say here: Examine the people; go carefully over them as to force, capacity, and providential destiny, and arrange that those who are able to go forth to war in Israel may be ready. There is always that wonderful other side. The Lord does not pour contempt upon men who cannot fight. He knows what they can do, and He will bless them if they keep within their capacity and their Divine call. Each man’s business should be to inquire, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? am I a soldier, a leader, a sailor? am I a home-keeper? am I intended for obscurity? am I to be written down amongst Thy feeble ones? Thy will be done. Nor let us limit this word “soldier” to what we understand commonly by war. Let us get away from these narrow limitations and look at life largely. The fact is that life itself is war. You cannot get away from strife. You cannot get away from it in business; you found it in the nursery before you found it in the market-place. The Church is a battlefield. What, then, is to be done? Everything depends upon the spirit in which the strife is urged. We may go forth to good wars with an evil intent. Or we may take it good-heartedly, with a great rising of gladness within the soul, saying, “This is Thy way, Lord, that we are to be made strong by fight; we begin by conflict, we are not to have our own way in the world; but give us the good spirit, loving, magnanimous.” The great fight is within. If you are a living man, you are at war with yourself. Even supposing all your friends and enemies were at one with you, there would be a great war in the soul. You must do the evil deed. Yet you do not want to do it; you dare not speak about it; the war is secret, silent, profound, vital. God give you strength! You may overcome yet. Life is not only a war, but the war may be conducted under the very presence and with the very blessing of Christ. Whoso goes forth to war in that power comes back at eventide more than the conqueror. The text reads as if it were a direction in statistics. We cannot exclude the element of statistics from spiritual aggression and spiritual defence. How strong is God’s army in numbers? “It is the glory of God to conceal a thing,” saith the wise book; and God conceals from us the exact numerical strength of His army. The statistics of the army are kept in heaven. What if it should turn out that a little child’s little finger-has won more victories than all the embattled hosts that went forth in mail? What we have to do is for each man to do his own share of the war, fight as if everything depended upon him. Christianity is the military religion. It will fight; it was born to fight. Christianity is dead against all evil. Not against great vulgar crimes only; there is not a magistrate on the bench who does not delight to punish crime. Crime is overt, external, rough, vulgar, and men are paid to sentence it to hard labour. Christianity deals with the spring, with the deceitful heart. Christianity is at war with motive, purpose, thought, intention of the heart. Therefore much of its war is done silently. It is not therefore the less vital and the less tremendous. Christianity insists that we shall fight evil spirits. It is soul against soul, spirit against spirit, thought against thought. There is no tragedy so sublime, so overwhelming, as the fight between the soul and the devil. Do not expect to win all at once. You are winning a little every day. Whatever fight you are waging you believe to be good, the mere fighting of the battle makes you stronger; you may he driven back for a little time, but you will come up again. Only, in God’s name, for Christ’s sake, do not lose your heart, or you will lose yourself. Let there be no doubt as to which side you are upon. People who are going between this side and that vide will be of no use in the fight and no use in the council. Let us have detiniteness of position. Let us have a clear, simple, honest profession of religion. Nor let any soul be discouraged because it cannot do much in the way of public battle. Some conquer by patience. Patience!--who can write the history of that great conqueror? Patience, that hardly sighs; patience, that scarcely ever turns its eyes to the clock to see how the weary time is going; patience, that puts the best view upon every case; patience, that sits up for the wanderer, though midnight be passed, saying all the while, that it really did not want to sleep; it is the inner interpretation of things; it is God’s view of life; it is love at its best. You are not doing much public fighting mayhap, but let me tell you what you are doing--you are succouring the soldiers that are out in the field; you spake so kindly to the good man when he left home in the morning that he went out as strong as ten men. And you are but some poor obscure servitor; your place is in the kitchen; you do what are called the humbler duties of life, but you make the whole house glad. You make the man of business go forth a happier and stronger man in the morning because of your simplicity and faithfulness and daily care. Understand that whoever gives one of Christ’s soldiers a cup of cold water with a loving hand and a loving glance wins part of the victory. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Our duty to the state

He is not worthy to be a member of a state, by whom the state is no whir bettered. The Romans well understood this, when they instituted their censors, to inquire into every man’s course of life, and to note them, carbone nigro, with a character of infamy, that could not give some good account of their life. It is a thing pitiful to consider how many there are in this land of ours whose glory is their shame, the very drones and cumber-grounds of their country, the chronicle of whose life was long since summed up by the poet, Nos numerus sumus et fruges consumere nati; no better than ciphers if you respect the good they do. But let them know that God will have no mutes in His grammar, no blanks in His almanack, no dumb shows on His stage, no false lights in His house, no loiterers in His vineyard. (J. Spencer.)

Verses 4-16

Numbers 1:4-16

A man of every tribe: every one head of the house of his fathers.

Bank and service

. Co-operation in divine service.

1. The toil of Moses and Aaron would be lessened.

2. The accomplishment of the task would be facilitated.

3. The envy of the princes would be prevented. Grumblers are seldom found among the workers of the Church.

Society’s need of leaders.

1. Because they are at present indispensable to social order and progress. Certain objects of utmost importance to society cannot possibly be attained without cohesion of purpose and effort on the part of a large number of men, and such cohesion is impossible without leaders. “Amongst the masses,” says Guizot, “even in revolutions, aristocracy must ever exist; destroy it in nobility, and it becomes centred in the rich and powerful Houses of the Commons. Pull them down, and it still survives in the master and foreman of the workshop.”

2. Because of the differences in the faculties of men. These men were “princes” from, the nobility of their birth: and they were probably men distinguished also for their abilities. “We must have kings,” says Emerson, “we must have nobles; nature is always providing such in every society; only let us have the real instead of the titular. In every society, some are born to rule, and some to advise. The chief is the chief all the world over, only not his cap and plume. It is only this dislike of the pretender which makes men sometimes unjust to the true and finished man.”

The grand characteristic of true leaders. They are pre-eminent in service. (W Jones.)

These are the names of the men.--

The Lord knows the number and the names of all who belong to Him

As this book of Moses beareth the title of Numbers, so a great part of it is spent in numbering of the people, to assure us that God hath numbered those that are His, and none escape His knowledge or sight. The Lord knoweth perfectly who they are that are His, both what their numbers and what their names are (1 Kings 19:10; 1 Kings 19:18; Romans 11:3-4; Psalms 147:5; Isaiah 40:26). The reasons are not hard to be gathered.

1. The knowledge of God is so exact and perfect that most secret things are known and the smallest are regarded of Him.

2. Christ Jesus setteth forth Himself as the true Shepherd of His sheep. A shepherd knoweth his own sheep.

3. All His people are evermore present with Him, wheresoever they be; yea, albeit they be absent from Him.


1. This giveth singular comfort to all God’s children, if anything else be able to minister them comfort. If an earthly prince should vouchsafe to look upon us, and single us out from the rest, and call us by our names, how would we rejoice, and how much would we esteem that the king would stoop so low as to know us? Do we live as contemptible persons to the men of this world? and will they not once vouchsafe to know us? Let not this trouble us, we cannot sink down in destruction; but rather let us lift up our heads, assuring ourselves that albeit they turn themselves from us, yet God looketh upon us: and though they seek to root out our names from the earth, yet He will know us and call us by our names.

2. We may gather from hence the wretched state of all the ungodly. For as it is a great part of the comfort of all God’s children that He will know them; who, as they have a regard to know God in this life, to know Him in His word and other means appointed for their salvation, so shall they be known of God in His kingdom, and acknowledged before the angels in heaven: so this is not the least of the misery belonging unto all that work iniquity, that God will not know them. Though He know them by the general knowledge of His power and providence, yet He will not see them with the eye of His pity, nor touch them with the hand of His favour, nor hear them with the ear of His bounty, nor speak unto them with the mouth of His goodness, nor compass them with the arm of His protection, nor come unto them with the feet of His presence, nor behold them with the face and countenance of His lovingkindness. Can there be a more miserable condition described and felt than this is?

3. Seeing all that are God’s are numbered of Him, and have their names written in His book, this serveth to seal up the assurance of our salvation and election to eternal life (2 Timothy 2:19).

4. Seeing the Lord knoweth us, it is our duty also to seek to know Him in all love and obedience. We must all of us begin to know Him here in this life, that we may know Him perfectly in the life to come. Here we must see Him as it were through a glass darkly, that hereafter we may see Him face to face fully. If we do not know Him in His word and sacraments, we shall never know Him in His kingdom. This knowledge of God necessarily required of us consisteth in these points following--

(1) We must confess Him to be the Sovereign and Highest Good, in comparison of whom all things are reputed as nothing, being as dross and nothing to be desired with Him.

(2) It behoveth us to depend upon Him, and to put our whole trust in Him alone, not in any man or angel: for then we make flesh our strength, and so lean upon a broken staff that cannot stay us, but will deceive us.

(3) We must draw near unto Him in time of need, as to the fountain of all goodness, with all reverence and humility craving all things of Him by hearty and fervent prayer. If we call upon Him, He hath promised to reveal Himself unto us.

(4) We must give Him thanks for all blessings received from Him, not only in prosperity, but in adversity.

(5) We must seek the knowledge of His ways and word, and increase in the knowledge thereof, which bringeth us to eternal life. As we grow forward in knowledge, so we grow forward unto life: and when our knowledge shall be perfected, then our life shall be perfected in the next world. Lastly, we must yield obedience unto Him and His word. (W. Attersoll.)

God’s knowledge of His people

The great truth here implied. God knows His people individually and altogether.

1. This is philosophical. If God is infinite, He must know all things. Nothing can be so great as to surpass His comprehension; nothing so small as to escape His notice.

2. This is Scriptural. (1 Kings 19:14-18; Psalms 1:6; Psalms 56:8; Psalms 147:3-4; Isaiah 40:26-31; Malachi 3:16-17; Matthew 6:25-34; Matthew 10:29-30; John 10:3; John 10:14; John 10:27; Philippians 4:3; 2 Timothy 2:19; Revelation 3:5; Revelation 21:27).

The practical bearings of this great truth.

1. To restrain from sin.

2. To promote sincerity of life.

3. To promote humility.

4. To quicken reverence towards God.

5. To comfort the godly under reverses. (W. Jones.)

They declared their pedigrees.--

The pedigree declared

“Can I declare my pedigree?” It is greatly to be feared there are hundreds, if not thousands, of professing Christians who are wholly incompetent to do so. They cannot say with clearness and decision, “Now are we the sons of God” (1 John 3:2). “Ye are all the children of God,” &c. “And if ye are Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed,” &c. (Galatians 3:26; Galatians 3:29). “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God,” &c. (Romans 8:14; Romans 8:16). This is the Christian’s “pedigree,” and it is his privilege to be able to “declare” it (cf. John 3:5; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23; Ephesians 5:26). The believer traces his pedigree directly up to a risen Christ in glory. His genealogical tree strikes its roots into the soil of the new creation. Death can never break the line, inasmuch as it is formed in resurrection. We can easily see, from this chapter, how essential it was that every member of the congregation of Israel should be able to declare his pedigree. Uncertainty on this point would have proved disastrous; it would have produced hopeless confusion. We can hardly imagine an Israelite, when called to declare his pedigree, expressing himself in the doubtful manner adopted by many Christians nowadays. We cannot conceive his saying, “Well, I am not quite sure. Sometimes I cherish the hope that I am of the stock of Israel; but at other times I am full of fear that I do not belong to the congregation of the Lord at all. I am all in uncertainty and darkness.” Much less could we imagine any one maintaining the monstrous notion that no one could possibly be sure as to whether he was a true Israelite or not until the day of judgment. Now, may we not legitimately ask, “If a Jew could be certain as to his pedigree, why may not a Christian be certain as to his?” We would urge this point at the outset. It is impossible for any one to recognise and rally round the proper “standard” unless he can declare his “pedigree.” Progress in wilderness life--success in spiritual warfare, is out of the question if there be any uncertainty as to the spiritual pedigree. We must be able to say, “We know that we have passed from death unto life,” “We believe and are sure,” ere there can be any real advance in the life and walk of a Christian. We do not mean to say you cannot be saved without this. God forbid we should say any such thing. But we ask, Are such able to go forth to war? They cannot even know what true conflict is; on the contrary, persons of this class mistake their doubts and fears, their dark and cloudy seasons, for true Christian conflict. It is when we stand in the clear daylight of God’s full salvation--salvation in a risen Christ--that we really enter upon the warfare proper to us as Christians. (C. H. Mackintosh.)

An honest pedigree:

Dr. Livingstone, the famous explorer, was descended from the Highlanders, and he said that one of his ancestors, one of the Highlanders, one day called his family around him. The Highlander was dying; he had his children around his death-bed. He said, “Now, my lads, I have looked all through our history as far back as I can find it, and I have never found a dishonest man in all the line, and I want you to understand you inherit good blood. You have no excuse for doing wrong. My lads, be honest.”

Verses 20-46

Numbers 1:20-46

Those that were numbered.

The first army of Israel, an illustration of the Church militant

. The necessity of this army. The Church must be militant.

1. Internal foes have to be conquered. Carnal appetites, evil passions, &c.

2. External foes have to be conquered. Ignorance and superstition, immorality and irreligion, dirt and disease, vice and crime.

The authority for organising this army. God’s command.

The composition of this army.

1. Israelites only. Thoroughly decided Christians are needed now.

2. Able men only. Christ gives strength even to the weak and timid.

3. All the able men. None exempt. We must either vanquish our spiritual enemies, or they will vanquish us. Neutrality is out of the question here. Neither can we do our fighting by proxy.

The conquering spirit of this army. When our faith in God is strong, we are invincible. When it fails, we are overthrown by the first assault of the enemy. True faith gives glorious visions to the spirit, inspires us with heroic courage, girds us with all-sufficient strength. Conclusion--

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

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

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

The necessity of war:

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

Verses 47-54

Numbers 1:47-54

The Levites . . . were not numbered.

The Levites and their service an illustration of the Christian ministry

The Levites were exempted from military service, and set apart for the service of the tabernacle. In any wise arrangement of the affairs of human society provision will be made for the requirements of the spiritual nature of man.

The true christian minister should manifest some fitness for the work before he is designated thereto. In determining the trade which their sons shall learn, wise parents will consider their respective inclinations and aptitudes. An artist would perhaps make a poor minister; a successful merchant might utterly fail as a barrister. Is there less aptitude required in the work of the gospel ministry than in the other pursuits of life? Adaptation of voice, of mind, of character, &c.

The true christian minister is called of God to his work.

The work of the christian minister demands his entire devotion thereto.

A faithful discharge of the duties of the christian minister is essential to the well-being of society.

Personal holiness of heart and life are essential to the faithful discharge of the duties of the christian ministry. Levites separated from other tribes for sacred work. Their outward separation intended to show separation from worldliness and sin. They who have to do with holy things should themselves be holy. (W. Jones.)

The Levites not numbered:

We shall see them afterward numbered by themselves, but they were not put in the common reckoning, because God had chosen them to be His possession, and separated them from the rest of the people. And lest any man should think that Moses did ambitiously prefer the tribe of Levi, whereof himself descended, he showeth he did it not of his own head, but by the special commandment of God. Their office is declared--to take the charge of the Tabernacle and worship of God, that when they were to take their journey they should carry it, and when they were to stay and pitch their tents they should set it down and look to it with all diligence. And as God would not have them encumbered in affairs unproper to them and impertinent to their calling, so He would not have others that were not of their tribe and family to break into their function, as it were to invade another man’s possession; nay, He denounceth death to such as were strangers from that tribe that should presume to meddle with those holy things, or set their hands unto them. An example hereof we have in Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:1-23.).. We learn from hence that it is the duty of the ministers of God’s Word to exercise themselves only in things of their calling; they must wait upon the office to which they are appointed. They are not to be distracted from their calling by worldly matters that no way belong unto them (Numbers 3:6-7). And doubtless it is great reason that they should content themselves with their own callings, that so they may please Him that hath called them, and forego all that may disturb them in the course whereunto they ought to tend. We must be like soldiers that are called to bear arms. The reason and comparison is pressed by the apostle to this purpose (2 Timothy 2:3-4). Secondly, the multitude is great, and the difficulty much of those things which are required of the minister, belonging rightly and duly to his calling, in regard whereof we may say (2 Corinthians 2:16). Were that a wise servant, who having both his hands fall, and more than he can well do, should, besides his master’s work, undertake a new and another burden of some other man’s business, which of right doth not belong unto him? (W. Attersoll.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/numbers-1.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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