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Monday, July 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 26

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verse 2

Numbers 26:2

Take the sum of all the congregation.

Divine enumeration

God is a God of numbers. He is always numbering. He may number to find out who are present, but in numbering to find out who are present He soon comes to know who are absent. He knows the total number, but it is not enough for Him to know the totality; He must know whether David’s place is empty, whether the younger son has gone from the father’s house, whether one piece of silver out of ten has been lost, whether one sheep out of a hundred has gone astray. We are all of consequence to the Father, because He does not look upon us through the glory of His majesty, but through the solicitude of His fatherhood and His love. We need this kind of thought in human life: living would be weary work without it. This chapter reads very much like the other chapter in which the census was first taken . . . The historic names are the same, but what a going-down in the detail! We must enter into this thought and follow its applications if we would be wise in history; generic names are permanent, but the detail of life is a panorama continually changing. It is so always and everywhere. The world has its great generic and permanent names, and it is not enough to know these and to recite them with thoughtless fluency. Who could not take the statistics of the world in general names? Then we should have the wise and the foolish, the rich and the poor, the faithful and the faithless, the good and the bad. That has been the record of life from the beginning ; and yet that is too broadly-lined to be of any real service to us in the estimate of human prayers and human moral quality. What about the detailed numbers, the individual men, the particular households, the children in the crowd? It was in these under-lines that the great changes took place. The bold, leading names remained the same, but they stood up like monumental stones over graves in which thousands of men had been buried. So with regard to our own actions; we speak of them too frequently with generic vagueness; we are wanting in the persistent criticism that will never allow two threads of life to be intertangled, that must have them separated and specifically examined. God will have no roughness of judgment, no bold vagueness, no mere striking of averages; but heart-searching, weighing--not the action: any manufactured scales might weigh a deed. He will have the motive weighed, the invisible force, the subtle, ghostly movement that stirs the soul; not to be found out by human wisdom, but to be seized, detected, examined, estimated, and determined by the living Spirit of the living God. The sin of the individual does not destroy the election of the race. Israel is still here, but almost countless thousands of Israelites have sinned and gone to their doom. With all this individual criticism and specific numbering, do not imagine that it lies within the power of any man to stop the purpose or arrest the kingdom of God. There is a consolatory view of all human tumult and change, as well as a view that tries the faith and exhausts the patience of the saint. It is pitiful for any Christian man to talk about individual instances of lapse or faithlessness, as though they touched the infinite calm of the mind of God, and the infinite integrity of the covenant of Heaven. It is so in all other departments of life--why not so on the largest and noblest scale? The nation may be an honest nation, though a thousand felons may be under lock and key at the very moment when the declaration of the national honesty is made; the nation may be declared to be a healthy country, though ten thousand men be burning with fever at the very moment the declaration of health is made. So the Church of the living Christ, redeemed at an infinite cost, sealed by an infinite love, is still the Lamb’s bride, destined for the heavenly city, though in many instances there may be defalcation, apostasy--yea, very treason against truth and good. Live in the larger thought; do not allow the mind to be distressed by individual instances. The kingdom is one, and, like the seamless robe, must be taken in its unity. Individuals must not trust to ancestral piety. Individual Israelites might have quoted the piety of many who had gone before; but that piety goes for nothing when the individual will is in rebellion against God. No man has any overplus of piety. No man may bequeath his piety to his posterity. A man cannot bequeath his learning-how can he bequeath his holiness? (J. Parker, D. D.)

The apparent insignificance and the real importance of human life

These uninteresting verses suggest--

The apparent insignificance of human life. How dull are the details, and how wearisome the repetitions of this chapter! What a number of obscure names of unknown persons it contains!

The real importance of human life. This will appear if we consider that--

1. Every man has his own individuality of being and circumstances.

2. Every man has his own possibilities.

3. Every man has his own influence.

4. Every man has his own accountability.

5. Every man is an object of deep interest to God.

To Him nothing is mean, nothing unimportant. (W. Jones.)

The interesting hidden in the commonplace

Here is the commonplace.

Here is the interesting in the commonplace. If we look into this chapter carefully we shall discover certain words which are suggestive of deep and tender interests. “Sons” is a word of frequent occurrence so also is the word “children”; we also read of “daughters” (Numbers 26:33), and of a “daughter” (Numbers 26:46). A profound human interest attaches to words like these. They imply other words of an interest equally deep and sacred; e.g., “father,” “mother.” The humblest, dullest, most commonplace life has its relations. The least regarded person in all the thousands of Israel was “Homebody’s bairn.” We also read of “death” (Numbers 26:19); most of the names which are here recorded belonged to men who, were gathered to their fathers; from the time of the twelve sons of Jacob here mentioned to the time of this census in the plains of Moab, many thousands of Israelites had died, of all ranks and of all ages. Reflection upon these facts awakens a mournful interest in the mind.

The importance of the commonplace. Impatience of the ordinary and the prosaic is an evidence of an unsound judgment and an unhealthy moral life.

1. Most of life’s duties are commonplace. Yet how important it is that these duties he faithfully fulfilled!

2. The greater number of persons are commonplace.

3. The greater part of life is commonplace. Be it ours to give the charm of poetry to prosaic duties, by doing them heartily; and to ennoble our commonplace lives by living them faithfully and holily. (W. Jones.)

Verses 9-11

Numbers 26:9-11

The earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up.

Solemn monitors against sin

Sin and infamy cling to families long after the actors have passed away. Parents ought to strive above all to leave to their children the heritage of a good name. Sin and infamy are long lived; as in the verse of our text, many years after the descendants are reminded of their ancestor’s crime. Their sin was to oppose Moses and God--using their influence as men of note to create a rebellion. God visited them for their sin--“And they became a sign” (see chap. 16.). They became “symbols,” “beacons.” God made use of them to teach great lessons. Visitations like that have tongues; they speak to us from God.

The insidious character of sin. Sin grows upon us; never trifle with it; safety in the opposing it. As the moth, dazzled with the light, &c., ends in being scorched or burnt, so it ever is with those who trifle with sin and parley with temptation.

They warn us of the terrible evil and danger of sin. Sin becomes our greatest curse; we have, indeed, nothing else to fear.

They show us what a curse bad men are to their families and others. If there is any manhood left in one, this thought must arrest his attention.

They show us God’s desire to benefit man. (David Lloyd.)

The victims of sin a warning to others

. A warning against the commission of sin.

A warning against association with sinners.

A warning against tempting others. (Lay Preacher.)

Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not.--

Children that live

“Notwithstanding, the children of Korah died not.” May we not read it--that though the sire dies the progeny lives? There is a continuity of evil in the world. We only cut off the tops of iniquities, their deep roots we do not get at; we pass the machine over the sward, and cut off the green tops of things that are offensive to us; but the juicy root is struck many inches down into the earth, and our backs will hardly be turned, and the click of the iron have ceased, before those roots are asserting themselves in new and obvious growths. Iniquity is not to be shaved off the earth--ironed and mowed away like an obnoxious weed--it must be uprooted, torn right up by every thinnest, frailest fibre of its bad self, and then, having been torn out, left for the fire of the sun to deal with--the fire of mid-day is against it and will consume it. And thus only can growths of evil be eradicated and destroyed. It is an awful thing to live! You cannot tell where influence begins, how it operates, or how it ends. The boy sitting next you is partly yourself, and he cannot help it, You cannot turn round and say, “You must look after yourself as I had to do.” That is a fool’s speech. You can never shake off the responsibility of having helped in known and unknown ways and degrees to make that boy what he is. Life is not a surface matter, a loose pebble lying on the road that men can take up and lay down again without any particular harm being done. When the boy drinks himself into madness, he may be but expressing the influences wrought within him by three generations. When the young man tells a lie, he may be surprised at his own audacity, and feel as if he were rather a tool and a victim than a person and a responsible agent--as if generations of liars were blackening his young lips with their falsehoods. When this youth is restive and will not go to the usual church, do not blame the modern spirit of scepticism and restlessness, but go sharply into the innermost places of your own heart, and see how far you have bolted the church doors against your son, or made a place which he would be ashamed to be seen in. Then there is a bright side to all this view. I can, now that I have got my rough reading done, turn this “notwithstanding “into a symbol of hope, a light of history; I can make high and inspiring uses of it. I will blot out the word, “Korah,” and fill in other names, and then the moral lesson of the text will expand itself into gracious meanings, rise above us like a firmament crowded with innumerable and brilliant lights. In days long ago they killed the martyrs--notwithstanding, the children of the martyrs died not. There the light begins to come; there I hear music lifting up sweetest voice of testimony and hope. So, in all the ages, one generation passeth away and another generation cometh, and still Christ’s following enlarges; on the whole, he sums up into higher figures year by year. Not that I care for census-religion, not that I would number people for the purpose of ascertaining Christ’s position in the world. The kingdom of heaven cometh not with observation; is not a matter of census-reckoning or statistic-returns; it is a matter of spiritual quality, inner manhood, meaning and attitude of the soul; and amid all sin, struggle, doubt, difficulty, darkness, the kingdom moves. (J. Parker, D. D.)

The children of Korah

These sons of Korah were afterwards in their prosperity eminently serviceable to the Church, being employed by David as singers in the house of the Lord; hence many psalms are said to be for the sons of Korah; and perhaps they were made to bear his name so long after, rather than the name of any other of their ancestors, for warning to themselves, and as an instance of the power of God, which brought those choice fruits even out of that bitter root. The children of families that have been stigmatised, should endeavour by their eminent virtues to bear away the reproach of their fathers. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

Verses 63-65

Numbers 26:63-65

There was not left a man of them, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun

The certainty of the fulfilment of God’s threatened judgments and promised mercies


We are here furnished with a confirmation of the fact that God will fulfil his threatenings against sinners.

1. We may conceive them to have counted upon their numerical strength. This has often been appealed to as a security against the punishment of crime. Nor can it be denied that, according as iniquity abounds in a community, it is the more rarely visited with its merited penalty. It is found, in such circumstances, not to be convenient to institute inquiry; and vice, with the colouring which the spirit of the age may have given to it, assumes not unfrequently the name of virtue. But it is far otherwise with Him whose power, holiness, and justice are infinite.

2. It is not improbable that, as a ground of security against threatened judgment, the Israelites in the wilderness counted on their privileges. On this principle many a sinner reasons to his own destruction; forgetting that the higher his privileges, the greater the punishment they involve, if unimproved. The execution of the sentence of death upon the Israelites was the more solemn, because executed amidst the enjoyment of the means of grace. They died, the monuments of Divine wrath--while on every side they were surrounded with privileges. They died, in that camp, which was the camp of the living God. They died, within sight of the Lord’s tabernacle, and of the ark of the Lord’s covenant. They died, while the manna from heaven was falling around them, and the stream from the smitten rock flowing before their eyes. They died, while the glory of the Lord was in their view--while the pillar in which the Lord Himself dwelt was over their head--while, as a cloud to refresh them, it was over them by day; and as a fire to give them light, was over them by night. These their privileges did not preserve them; and neither will yours preserve you.

3. The Israelites in the wilderness may have been tempted to infer that the Lord would not execute His threatened vengeance against them, because all were not at one and the same time visited with punishment. To some of them a respite of nearly forty years was granted. But, when apparently within reach of the Land of Promise--when its hills and mountains were in view before their eyes--when they had only to march forward one other stage and to cross the Jordan, in order to obtain possession of it--the last of the doomed generation died, and their burial there made it manifest that God’s threatenings are sure.

But in our text we are furnished with an impressive illustration of the fact, that as God will fulfil His threatenings against sinners, so also His promises in favour of His own people.

1. This, in the case of Caleb and Joshua, was made manifest, notwithstanding the crowd of the ungodly with which they were mingled. But, “the Lord knoweth them that are His.” He loves them, as His chosen, with an everlasting love. They are “sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of their inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession.” Wherever thy lot may be cast, it is His sun that shines upon thy head; it is His stars that give thee light; it is His air that thou breathest; it is His food with which thou art supplied. “Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without Him; and the hairs of thy head are all numbered.”

2. in the case of Caleb and Joshua, we are furnished with a confirmation of the truth of God’s gracious promises to His people notwithstanding the dangers to which they are exposed.

3. In the instance referred to in our text we behold the fulfilment of God’s gracious promises to His people, in opposition to every sentiment of distrust arising from the length and intricacy of their path. (T. Doig, M. A.)

The faithfulness of God

. The faithfulness of God to His threatenings. The judgment which God pronounced thirty-eight years previous He has now completely fulfilled (cf. Numbers 14:11-39)


1. The immense number of the condemned does not avail for the escape of any one of them. Sentence was passed upon upwards of six hundred thousand men; “and there was not left a man of them.” “Though hand join in hand,” &c (Proverbs 11:21).

2. The lapse of time before the complete execution of the sentence does not avail for the escape of any one. Thirty-eight years passed away before the judgment pronounced was fully carried out; but ultimately not one upon whom it was passed escaped.

The faithfulness of God to His purposes.

The faithfulness of God to His promises. He promised to spare Caleb and Joshua, and to bring them unto the promised land (Numbers 14:23-30); and He spared them, and in due season brought them into that land. (W. Jones.)

The census of Israel

Thirty-eight years had passed since the first numbering at Sinai, and the people had come to the borders of the promised land. The time had come for another census. The wisdom which commanded the counting of Israel at the beginning of the wilderness journey, also determined to count them at the end of it. This would show that God did not value them less than in former years; it would afford proof that His word of judgment had been fulfilled to them; and, moreover, it would marshal them for the grand enterprise of conquering the land of Canaan. The numbering on this occasion was not of the women and children or the infirm; for the order ran thus (Numbers 26:2). If the numbers of our Churches were taken in this fashion, would they not sadly shrink? We have many sick among us that need to be carried about, and nursed, and doctored. Half the strength of the Church goes in ambulance service towards the weak and wounded. Another diminution of power is occasioned by the vast numbers of undeveloped believers, to whom the apostle would have said (Hebrews 5:12). To revise the Church rolls so as to leave none but vigorous soldiers on the muster-roll would make us break our hearts over our statistics. May the Lord send us, for this evil, health and cure! When the second census was taken, it was found that the people were nearly of the same number as at the first. Had it not been for the punishment so justly inflicted upon them, they must have largely increased; but now they had somewhat diminished. It is of God to multiply a nation, or a Church. We may not expect any advance in our numbers if we grieve the Spirit of God, and if by our unbelief we drive Him to declare that we shall not prosper.

First, observe the notable change wrought among the people by death (Numbers 26:64). The entire mass of the nation had been changed.

1. Such changes strike us as most memorable. In the course of forty years, what changes take place in every community, in every Church, in every family! The march of the generations is not a procession passing before our eyes, while we sit, like spectators, at the window; but we are in the procession ourselves, and we, too, are passing down the streets of time, and shall disappear in our turn.

2. This change was universal throughout the whole camp. “There was not left a man of them.” Thus is it among ourselves: no offices can be permanently held by the same men: “they are not suffered to continue by reason of death.” No position, however lofty or lowly, can retain its old possessor. It is not only the cedars that fall, but the fir-trees feel the axe. “There is no discharge in that war.” That same scythe which cuts down the towering flower among the grass, also sweeps down whole regiments of green blades.

3. The change is inevitable. We must soon quit our tents for the last battle. When the conscript number shall be drawn we may escape this year, and next; but the lot will fall upon us in due time. There is no leaping from the net of mortality wherein, like a shoal of fish, we are all enclosed.

4. All this change was still under the Divine control. Stern though the work may be, God’s great and tender heart rules the ravages of death.

5. The change was beneficial. It was desirable that there should be a people trained in a better school, with a nobler spirit, fit to take possession of the promised land. The change was working rightly: the Divine purpose was being fulfilled. The incoming of new blood into the social frame is good in a thousand ways; it is well that we should make room for others who may serve our Master better.

6. These changes are most instructive. If we are now serving God, let us do so with intense earnestness, since only for a little while shall we have the opportunity to do so among men.

The perpetuity of the people of God. The nation is living, though a nation has died. It is the same chosen seed of Abraham with whom Jehovah is in covenant. God has a Church in the world, and He will have a Church in the world till time shall be no more. The gates of hell and the jaws of death shall not prevail against the Church, though each one of its members must depart out of this world in his turn.

1. Mark well, that “the Church in the wilderness” lives on. Everything has changed, and yet nothing has altered. Although the men who bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord wear other names, yet they fulfil the same office. The music of the sanctuary rises and falls, but the strain goes on. The hallelujah never ceases, nor is there a pause in the perpetual chorus, “His mercy endureth for ever.”

2. The gaps were filled up by appointed successors. As one warrior died another man stepped into his place, even as one wave dying on the shore is pursued by another. God buries His workmen, but His work lives.

3. At this second numbering the people stood ready for greater work than they had ever done before.

4. It was Israel’s joy that God’s love was not withdrawn from the nation.

The unchangeableness of the word of God.

The abiding necessity of faith.

1. No man is, was, or ever shall be saved without faith.

2. No privilege can supply the lack of faith. (C. H. Spurgeon.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 26". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/numbers-26.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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