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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 19

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-22

Numbers 19:1-22

A red heifer without spot.

The red heifer

. It is undoubtedly true that even the true Israelite, the true believer in Christ, is the subject of daily defilement.

1. Some of our defilement arises from the fact that we do actually come into contact with sin, here imaged in the corruption of death. The best of men are men at the best, and while they are only men they will still sin. We are in close connection with sin, because sin is in ourselves. It has dyed us through and through, staining the very warp and woof of our nature, and until we lay aside these bodies and are admitted to the Church of the first-born above, we shall never cease very intimate connection with sin.

2. Moreover, we get defilement from companionship with sinners. This dusty world must leave some mark upon our white garments let us travel as carefully as we may. “I am black because the sun hath looked upon me,” must ever be the confession of the bride of Christ. This world is full of the spiritually dead, and since we live we must be often rendered unclean among the sinful, and hence we need a daily cleansing to fit us for daily fellowship with a holy God.

3. One reason why we are so constantly defiled is our want of watchfulness. You will observe that everything in the tent of a dead man was defiled except vessels that were covered over. Any vessel which was left open was at once unclean. You and I ought to cover up our hearts from the contamination of sin. It were well for us if we kept our heart with all diligence, since out of it are the issues of life.

4. Sin is so desperately evil that the very slightest sin defiles it. He who touched a bone was unclean. It was not necessary to put your hand upon the clay-cold corpse to be defiled; the accidently touching with the foot a bone carelessly thrown up by the grave-digger; even the touching it by the ploughman as he turned up his furrow, even this was sufficient to make him unclean. Sin is such an immeasurably vile thing that the slightest iniquity makes the Christian foul--a thought, an imagination, the glancing of an eye.

5. Sin, even when it is not seen, defiles, for a man was defiled who touched a grave. Oh, how many graves there are of sin--things that are fair to look upon, externally admirable and internally abominable!

6. The Jew was not only in danger of defilement in his tent and when he walked the roads, but he was in danger m the open fields; for you will observe, it says, that if he touched a body that had been slain in the open fields, or a bone, he should be unclean. Wherever you go you find sin!

A purification has been provided. The ransomed Church of God need daily to be washed in the fountain, and the mercy is that the precious blood shall never lose its power, but its constant efficacy shall abide till they are, every one of them, “Saved to sin no more.”

1. There is a propitiation provided for daily defilement, for first of all, if it were not so, how melancholy were your case and mine!

2. The Lord must have provided a daily cleansing for our daily defilement, for if not, where were His wisdom, where His love? He has provided for everything else.

3. The work of our Lord Jesus Christ assures us of this. What is there opened for the house of David, for sin, and for uncleanness? A cistern? A cistern that might be emptied, a waterpot, such as that which stood at Cana’s marriage feast, and might be drained? No; there is a fountain open for sin and uncleanness. We wash, the fountain flows; we wash again, the fountain flows still. From the great depths of the deity of Christ, the eternal merit of His passion comes everlastingly welling up. Wash! wash! It is inexhaustible, for it is fountain-fulness.

4. The work of the Holy Spirit also meets the case, for what is His business but constantly to take of the things of Christ and reveal them unto us; constantly to quicken, to enlighten, and to comfort? Why all this but because we are constantly in need, perpetually being defiled, and therefore wanting perpetually to have the purification applied?

5. Facts show that there is a purification for present guilt. The saints of old fell into sin, but they did not remain there.

The red heifer sets forth in a most admirable manner the daily purification for daily sin.

1. It was a heifer--an unusual thing for a sacrifice to be a female; and we scarcely know why it should be in this case, unless indeed, to make the substitution more evident. This red heifer stood for all the house of Israel--for the whole Church of God; and the Church is always looked upon and considered in Scripture as being the spouse--the bride--always feminine. Perhaps, to make the substitution obvious and complete, to show that this heifer stood in the stead and place of the whole seed of Israel, it was chosen rather than the customary bullock.

2. It was a red heifer--bringing to the mind of the Israelites the idea of blood, which was always associated with atonement and putting away of sin. Surely when we think of Christ, we always associate Him with the streaming gore when we are under a sense of sin.

3. It was a heifer without spot--denoting the perfection of Christ’s character.

4. Observe that the red heifer was one whereon never came yoke. Perhaps this sets forth how willingly Christ came to die for us; not forced from heaven, but freely delivering Himself for us all. An interesting circumstance about this red heifer is that it was not provided by the priests; it was not provided out of the usual funds of the sanctuary, nor yet by the princes, nor by any one person.

5. The children of Israel provided it. What for? Why, that as they came out of their tents in the desert, or their houses in Jerusalem, and saw the priests leading the red heifer, every man, and every woman, and every child might say, “I have a share in that heifer, I have a share in that victim which is being led out of the city to be consumed.” I wish--oh! I would to God I dare hope, that every man and every woman here could say, “I have a share in Jesus Christ,” for that is the meaning of this national provision, to let us see how Christ shed His blood for all His people, and they have all a part and all an interest in Him.

6. As we noted what this victim was, there is yet to be observed what was done with it. Again, let me beg you to refer to your Bibles to see what became of this red heifer.

(1) It was taken out of the camp. Herein it was a picture of Christ. That He might sanctify His people with His own blood, He suffered without the camp. Without the camp was the place of uncleanness. There the lepers dwelt; there every defiled person was put in quarantine. Jesus Christ must be numbered with the transgressors, and must suffer upon Mount Calvary, outside the city gates, upon that general Tyburn of criminals, “the place of a skull.” The people of God are to be a separate people from all the rest of the world; they are not to be numbered with the dwellers in this world’s city; they are to be strangers, and pilgrims, and sojourners, as all their fathers were. Therefore, Christ, to set them an example of separation, suffers Himself without the camp.

(2) When taken without the camp, the red cow was slain. A dying Saviour that takes away our sin. We love Christ the risen one, we bless Christ the living, pleading intercessor, but after all the purification to your conscience and to mine comes from the bleeding sacrifice. See Him slain before our eyes.

(3) When the heifer was slain, Eleazer dipped his finger in the blood as it flowed gurgling forth. He dipped his finger in the warm blood, and sprinkled it seven times before the door of the tabernacle. Seven is the number of perfection--to show that there was a perfect offering made by the sprinkling of the blood; even so, Jesus has perfectly presented His bloody sacrifice, Now mark, all this does not purify. I am not yet come to that point. Atonement precedes purification: Christ must die and offer Himself a victim, or else He cannot be the purifier.

(4) When the whole was fully burnt, or while burning, we find the priest threw in cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet. What was this? According to Maimonides the cedar wood was taken in logs and bound round with hyssop, and then afterwards the whole enveloped in scarlet; so what was seen by the people was the scarlet which was at once the emblem of sin and its punishment--“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” Everything you see still continues of the red colour, to set forth atonement for sin. Inside this scarlet there is the hyssop of faith, which gives efficacy to the offering in each individual, and still within this is the cedar wood that sent forth a sweet and fragrant smell, a perfect righteousness, giving acceptance to the whole. One delights to think of this in connection with Christ, that, as there is a daily witness of our defilement, so there is a daily imputation of His perfect righteousness to us, so that we stand every day accepted in the beloved by a daily imputation, by which not only is daily sin covered, but daily righteousness given to us.

(5) The pith of the matter lies in the last act, with the remains of the red cow. The cinders of the wood, the ashes of the bones, and dung, and flesh of the heifer, were all gathered together, and carried away and laid by in a clean place. According to the Jews there was not another heifer killed for this purpose for a thousand years. They say, but then we have no reason to believe them, that there have never been but nine red heifers offered at all; One in the days of Moses, the next in Ezra’s time, and the other seven afterwards, and that when Messiah comes He is to offer the tenth, by which they let out the secret that they do look upon the Messiah as coming in His own time to complete the type. Our own belief is that a red heifer was always found when ashes were wanted, and as there were hundreds and thousands of persons defiling themselves, the place where the ashes were kept was much frequented, and much of the purifying matter required. The ashes were to be put into a vessel with running water, and the water was sprinkled over the unclean person who touched a body or a bone. By this process the ashes would require to be renewed much oftener than once in a thousand years, in order that every one might have his portion. Does not thin storing up suggest that there is a store of merit in Christ Jesus? There was not only enough to make us free from sin by justification, but there is a store of merit laid up that daily defilement may be removed as often as it comes. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

The law of the red heifer applied

The record of the law of the red heifer unfolds some traces of the manner, times, and substance of God’s teaching in those days when the children of Israel “could not steadfastly look to the end.”

1. His method was largely to use symbols, but not to the withholding of words. As objects lying in darkness cannot be presented but must be represented, so the truths suited to the manhood of our race were taught in that method to earlier generations.

2. The symbols of the Jewish worship were instituted at special times. God did not put it forth as a system. He did not place it as a full-grown tree in a wood. It is like a house to which have been added rooms and offices and hall as the growth of the family has demanded more scope in which to maintain new and higher thoughts. Wider views of what they need towards God cause Him to send out the beams of a light which is to dispel every doubt and fear.

Liability for social evil. What was there in the fact that a virulent disease had deprived so many of life, to produce a conviction that God cannot be approached for worship? Why should contact with a corpse, or entrance into a tent in which human life had ebbed away, or even a bone, or a grave trod upon, be as a barrier blocking up the way of the people to the sanctuary? Might the survivors not reason thus: “If those who have died did wrong we have been equally wrong; if we are not erased from the roll of the living there is, notwithstanding, an evil chargeable to us; partakers in a like offence we are worthy of a like condemnation; the evil has not exhausted itself on them, and we are liable in some form for their calamities; we cannot in this state of pollution go into the presence of God--is there not needed a purification from those social ills whose last and most affecting sign is death?”

The ignominy of death. The law recited in this chapter distinctly informs us that the presence of, or contact with, the signs of the death of mankind, separated from communion with God in His sanctuary. Would not thought be excited of some such form as this--“It is clear that there is no moral defilement in mere closeness to the signs of death, not to come into contact with them might be a sinful act--and yet we are treated, as to our standing before God, just as if we had been guilty of gross crimes. If God-appointed duties and circumstances render it unbecoming, and even impossible, that we should keep free from those relations to the dead mentioned by this law, why should we incur such a fearful result? Surely there must be some virulent spreading poison rankling in men’s death. If by its presence or touch an impassable gulf at once sinks between God and us, what an offensive attitude against Him must death assume I Much more than mere sensational shrinking should creep over us before it. How can we avoid engraving deeply on our hearts the thought that it is dishonourable to die!” What is in death to make it so? This: that death is the seal of a Divine curse on man.

Freedom from the consequences of sin is by application of a prepared remedy. The several parts in the process of preparing the water of cleansing bear emblems to show what God requires for freeing from sin. The slaying of the heifer and the sprinkling of its blood laid bare the foundation principles, that “it is the blood which maketh atonement for the soul”--that “without shedding of blood is no remission of sins.” Everything that blocked up the way to the favour of the Lord is removed by the appointed sacrifices. He is reconcileable, and ready to count the evils of the congregation satisfied for. Were the Israelites, then, entitled to say, “The offerings of atonement are made; sins are taken away; we are free from all further hindrances to acceptance ; we need to care nothing more about what happens to us”? No. If acceptable offerings have been made for the people, yet events come to pass from which defilement will be caused to individuals, and, if this personal unfitness be not removed, perilous consequences must follow. Uncleanness incurred from the dead--the great sign of moral pollution--prevents approach to the holy Lord God. Separated from His presence on earth is a forecasting of an eternal separation--“that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” But He has a remedy for this too. He provides means of purification, and thus of renewed access to Himself. Not only is the blood of bulls and of goats shed, but the ashes of a heifer is also to “ sprinkle the unclean, in order to sanctify to the purifying of the flesh,” and render fit for all the privileges of acceptable worship.

To be without fitness for standing before God acceptably is inexcusable and irretrievable. Once purified did not do away with the necessity of being purified again, when another defilement had been incurred. The new impurity must be removed by a new application, and the cleansing remedy was constantly available (Numbers 19:9-10). God keeps in store that odour which can counteract the poisoning air of death; that which will restore to health at all times and never lose its efficacy; that which can be applied for with the fullest confidence that it is provided against the renewed impediments to serving God acceptably, and warrants “boldness to enter into the holiest.” What could justify neglect of this remedy? What evasion was possible when the uncleanness was so manifestly chargeable, and the provision for removing it so easily procurable? Must not every trifler, delayer, or neglecter be held guilty, without any palliation, of despising his Lord’s grace and might? (D. G. Watt, M. A.)

The ordinance of the red heifer; a parable of the pollution of sin and the Divine method of cleansing therefrom

. The defiling nature of sin.

1. Sin is defiling in its nature.

2. The defiling power of sin is of great virulence.

3. The defiling power of sin is widespread.

The necessity of cleansing from sin.

The provision of cleansing from sin.

1. It is Divine in its origin.

2. It involves the sacrifice of the most perfect life.

3. It is invariable in its efficacy.

The application of the provision for cleansing from sin. (W. Jones.)

The red heifer an analogue of the Christ

. In its characteristics.

1. Fulness of life.

2. Perfection of life.

In the treatment to which it was subjected.

1. The heifer was sacrificed.

2. The heifer was sacrificed “without the camp.”

In the purpose for which it was designed.

1. The red heifer was intended to cleanse from ceremonial defilement.

2. The ashes of the heifer were efficacious for this purpose: “How much more shall the blood of Christ,” &c. (W. Jones.)

The ordinance of the red heifer

The special feature of the new ordinance is in the means taken to make one sacrifice available for an indefinite number of cases. This was done by the concentration, so to speak, of all the elements of the sacrifice in the ashes which were to be preserved. Here we have the explanation of the casting “into the midst of the burning of the heifer” of “cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet” (Numbers 19:6). These represent the appliances for sprinkling: the hyssop stalk with scarlet wool wrapped round it, fastened on a piece of cedar wood, which was held in the hand. By the casting of these into the burning the idea of sprinkling was, as it were, perpetuated in the ashes which were the residuum of the whole. These ashes could of course be preserved and used for an indefinite time; and each time they were used, the ideas which had, so to speak, been burnt into them, would be impressed upon the minds and hearts of the devout. The ashes then represented the power of a past sacrifice; “even in its ashes live its former fires.” The use of the running water with the ashes (Numbers 19:17) has the same significance as in the ritual for the cleansing of the leper in Leviticus 14:1-57. In making application of the ordinance of the red heifer to ourselves, we find it specially instructive in regard to the restoration of that communion with God which ought to be the chief joy of the Christian, and which is too often broken by the contracting of stains, so difficult to avoid, with sin “reigning unto death” all around us. There are those who, under these circumstances, feel peculiarly discouraged. They have the impression that it must be exceedingly difficult to get back to their former position. They remember how long it took them at first to be reconciled to God; and they think how much more difficult it must be now that the evil has been allowed after the experience of God’s saving grace. It seems a long and hard way back; and they have not courage to begin again. It is a mistake The way back again is not long and hand. There are the ashes of the heifer and the running water close at hand. There need be no delay, as if a new animal must be obtained, and brought to the priest, and killed at the altar, and so forth. There is a shorter way. Look back to the Sacrifice offered long ago once for all. There is the running water of the Word, which has in it, as it were in solution, the strong ashes of the Sacrifice. There for evermore is stored the virtue of that blood which “cleanseth from all sin.” There need be no delay. For the ashes and the water, we have the Cross and the Word; and all that is wanted is the immediate use of God’s “perpetual statute for purifying the unclean” (Hebrews 9:13-14). (J. M. Gibson, D. D.)

The red heifer a wilderness type

A thoughtful student of Scripture would naturally feel disposed to inquire why it is that we get this type in Numbers and not in Leviticus. In the first seven chapters of the latter book we have a very elaborate statement of the doctrine of sacrifice; and yet we have no allusion whatever to the red heifer. Why is this? We believe it furnishes another striking illustration of the distinctive character of our book. The red heifer is, pre-eminently, a wilderness type. It was God’s provision for defilements by the way, and it prefigures the death of Christ as a purification for sin, to meet our need in passing through a defiling world, home to our eternal rest above. When, with the eye of faith, we gaze upon the Lord Jesus, we not only see Him to be the spotless One, in His own holy Person, but also One who never bore the yoke of sin. He speaks of “My yoke” (Matthew 11:29); it was the yoke of implicit subjection to the Father’s will in all things. This was the only yoke He ever wore; and this yoke was never off, for one moment, during the entire of His spotless and perfect career--from the manger, where He lay a helpless babe, to the Cross, where He expired as a victim. But He wore no yoke of sin. Let this be distinctly understood. He went to the Cross to expiate our sins, to lay the groundwork of our perfect purification from all sin; but He did this as One who had never, at any time during His blessed life, worn the yoke of sin. He was “without sin”; and, as such, was perfectly fitted to the great and glorious work of expiation. “Wherein is no blemish, and whereon never came yoke.” It is quite as needful to remember and weigh the force of the word “whereon,” as of the word “wherein.” Both expressions are designed by the Holy Ghost to set forth the perfection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who was not only internally spotless, but also externally free from every trace of sin. Neither in His Person, nor yet in His relationships, was He in any wise obnoxious to the claims of sin or death. He--adored for ever be His name!--entered into all the reality of our circumstances and condition, but in Him was no sin, and on Him no yoke of sin. (C. H. Mackintosh.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 19". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/numbers-19.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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