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Sunday, July 21st, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 15

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-31



Numbers 15:1

The Lord spake unto Moses. It must have been during the years of wandering, but within those limits it is impossible even to conjecture the probable date. There is no external evidence, and the internal evidence is wholly indecisive. Neither can it be reasonably maintained that these regulations were designed to revive the hope and sustain the faith of the rising generation. Incidentally they may have had some effect in that way, but it is evident that the primary object of their promulgation was simply to supply certain defects and omissions in the Levitical legislation. Why that legislation should have had the fragmentary and unfinished character which it so evidently bears, requiring to be supplemented, here by an isolated commandment, and there by oral tradition, is an interesting and difficult question; but there can be no doubt as to the fact, and it is superfluous to look any further for the reason of the enactments here following.

Numbers 15:2

When ye be come into the land. The same formula is used in Le Numbers 23:10 concerning the wave-sheaf. It is only remarkable here because it tacitly assumes—

(1) that the burnt offerings and sacrifices mentioned would not be offered any more in the wilderness;

(2) that the nation to which it was spoken would surely enter into Canaan at last.

Numbers 15:3

A burnt offering, or a sacrifice, i.e; a whole burnt offering, or a slain offering. There should be a comma after the word "sacrifice." In performing a vow, or in a free-will offering, or in your solemn feasts. The burnt offering, or slain offering, might be offered in either of these three ways, in addition to the more ordinary sacrifices which do not come into question here.

Numbers 15:4

A meat offering. See on Leviticus 2:1-16. The command to add the meat offering in every such case had not been given before, but it had apparently been the practice (see Le Leviticus 23:18) in accordance with the law of the daily sacrifice given in Exodus 29:40, Exodus 29:41.

Numbers 15:5

A drink offering. This is nowhere separately treated of in Leviticus, but it is mentioned along with the meat offering in the passages just referred to. Libations are amongst the simplest and most universal of offerings to the unseen powers. For one lamb. כֶבֶשׂ, lamb or kid.

Numbers 15:6

Or for a ram. The meat and drink offerings were to be proportionate in amount to the size of the victim.

Numbers 15:8

Peace offerings. The sacrifices made of free-will, or made on solemn feast-days, would commonly be peace offerings (see on Leviticus 7:1-38).

Numbers 15:9

Then shall he bring. The rapid interchange of the second and third persons in these verses is awkward and perplexing. No doubt it is due to some sufficiently simple cause in the inditing of the original record, but we arc not in a position even to guess at its nature. Meanwhile the broken construction remains as a witness to the faithfulness with which the record has been handed down.

Numbers 15:12

According to the number. The strict proportion of the meat and drink offerings was to be carried out with respect to the numbers, as well as the individual value, of the sacrifices.

Numbers 15:13

All that are born of the country. כָּל־הָאֶזְרָח, all the native born. Septuagint, πᾶς ὁ αὐτόχθων. The phrase is used no doubt from the point of view of a resident in Canaan; but it was only to such residents that these ordinances applied. Those things. The regulations just mentioned.

Numbers 15:14

A stranger. Septuagint, προσήλυτος.

Numbers 15:15

One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, &c. Rather, "As for the congregation (הַקָּהָל construed absolutely), one law for you, and for the stranger that sojourneth, an eternal ordinance for your generations; as with you so shall it be with the stranger before the Lord."

Numbers 15:17

And the Lord spake unto Moses. Whether on the same or on some other occasion we cannot tell. The two enactments have the same supplemental and (humanly speaking) trivial character.

Numbers 15:19

When ye eat of the bread of the land. A thing which the younger Israelites, few of whom had ever tasted bread, must have eagerly looked forward to (see on Joshua 5:11, Joshua 5:12). An heave offering. See on Exodus 29:27; Le Exodus 7:14. The dedication of first-fruits had been ordered in general terms in Exodus 22:29; Exodus 23:19.

Numbers 15:20

A cake of the first of your dough. עַרִסֹת, only used here and in the two passages which refer to this enactment (Neh 10:1-39 :87; Ezekiel 44:30). It probably means whole meal coarsely ground, the first preparation of the new corn available for baking and eating. Septuagint has ἀπαρχὴ φυράματος, an expression used by St. Paul in Romans 11:16. As … the heave offering of the threshing floor, so shall ye heave it, i.e; the offering of bread from the home was to be made in addition to the offering of ears or grains from the threshing-floor, and in the same manner. No doubt this latter offering was a very ancient (Genesis 4:3) and general one, but it is not clearly described in the Law (see, however, Le Romans 2:14; 23:10). All these heave offerings were the perquisite of the priest.

Numbers 15:22

And if ye have erred. The absence of the usual formula, "and the Lord spake unto Moses," is singular, because what follows has reference not to the enactment just made, but to the whole Law. Perhaps it is a part of the thoroughly unscientific and inartificial character of the Mosaic legislation that a principle of extreme importance and wide application is appended to an insignificant matter of ceremonial. Provision is here made for the forgiveness of sins due to ignorance and oversight—a provision which was sorely needed, considering the great complexity of the Law, and the bad training they had for the accurate observance of it (Deuteronomy 12:8). A similar provision had been made in Leviticus 4:1-35. The two, however, differ, inasmuch as this contemplates sins of commission, while this contemplates sins of omission.

Numbers 15:23

From the day that the Lord commanded … and henceforward among your generations. Or, "thenceforward according to your generations." These words are obscure, because they point apparently to a much larger lapse of time since the first giving of the Law than had really occurred. It may be that they include the possibility of fresh revelations of the Divine will in the time to come.

Numbers 15:24

If ought be committed. Rather, "if it be committed," i.e; the non-observance of "all these commandments." It cannot, however, be necessary to suppose that a falling away from the whole body of the Mosaic legislation is here intended; such an apostasy could not happen by oversight, and if it did, the remedy provided would seem much too slight for the occasion. The analogy of the provision which follows (Numbers 15:27), and of the parallel provisions in Le Numbers 4:2, Numbers 4:13, points clearly to the neglect of any one of the Divine commandments. One young bullock for a burnt offering. In the case of a sin of commission done ignorantly, the bullock was treated as a sin offering (Le Numbers 4:14, Numbers 4:20), for in that case the expiation of guilt incurred is the prominent point in the atonement; in this case it is the necessity of a fresh self-dedication to the Lord. According to the manner, כַּמִּשְׁפָט, according to the ordinance given above. One kid of the goats for a sin offering. This was no doubt offered first, because expiation must precede self-oblation, but the bullock is mentioned first as forming the principal part of the sacrifice. The kid was probably treated according to the regulations of Le Numbers 4:14, sq.

Numbers 15:26

Seeing all the people were in ignorance. Literally, "because (sc. it happened) to the whole nation in ignorance." As the stranger was counted as of the nation for religious purposes, he shared both in its sin and in its forgiveness. There is no record of this atonement ever having been made, although there was abundant occasion for it; it may well be that it was intended only to stand on record against the Jews, and to point them to the one true expiation for their national as well as for their particular transgressions.

Numbers 15:27

And if any soul sin through ignorance. No doubt by way of omission, as in the preceding case, and thus this regulation will be distinguished from that in Le Numbers 4:27. In either case the ritual is apparently intended to be the same, although not so fully described here. In Numbers 4:29 the benefit of the ordinance is extended to strangers; this was natural in a law which directly contemplates the residence of Israel in their permanent home.

Numbers 15:30

The soul that doeth … presumptuously. Literally, "with a high hand," i.e; defiantly. A similar phrase is used of God himself (Exodus 13:9). The same reproacheth the Lord, מְגַדֵּף, revileth. Septuagint, παροξυνεῖ In Ezekiel 20:27 it is translated "blasphemeth." Perhaps "affronteth" would be better. He that deliberately broke the commandment of the Lord avowed him. self his open enemy, and, as it were, challenged him to single combat. Cut off. See Genesis 17:14.

Numbers 15:31

His iniquity … upon him. עַוֹנָה בָהּ, "its crime upon it," i.e; the sin of that soul must come upon it in punishment.


Numbers 15:1-31


The laws given in this section were to be "an ordinance for ever," but they have long ago come to an end as far as the literal observance of them is concerned; it is certain, therefore, that they have an abiding spiritual fulfillment in the law of Christ. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT THE TWO FIRST OF THOSE LAWS WERE DESIGNED FOR THE ISRAELITES WHEN THEY CAME INTO THE LAND OF THEIR HABITATION; they do not contemplate the period of wandering in the desert which was then going on. Even so a great part of the law of Christ is designed for that state of holy "joy and peace in believing," for that "rest" which is intended to be our habitation even now, and into which we do enter (Hebrews 4:3 a), albeit imperfectly and uncertainly. Many of the counsels of our Lord and his apostles are manifestly out of all harmony with the ordinary lives of ordinary Christians, because they pertain to a state of detachment and self-conquest which we, through perversity or half-heartedness, have not attained (Matthew 5:29, Matthew 5:39, Matthew 5:40, Matthew 5:48; Matthew 6:34; Matthew 16:25; Matthew 17:20; Matthew 19:12, Matthew 19:21; Matthew 20:26, Matthew 20:27; Luke 6:35; Luke 12:33; Romans 14:21; 1Co 5:11; 1 Corinthians 6:4, 1Co 6:7; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Philippians 2:5; 1 Timothy 6:8, &c.). These are indeed addressed to all Christians ("speak unto the children of Israel"), not to a select few; but they are addressed to them on the assumption that they have striven after and attained the higher life of the Spirit ("when ye be come," &c.). And this is the real answer to the mocking or uneasy spirit which reproaches the gospel of Christ with being visionary, and with having failed to realize itself in the actual life of Christendom. It is quite true that, as far as the present is concerned, the mind of Christ is not fulfilled in the great majority even of decent-living Christians, because they have not attained to rest, but are wandering still in the deserts of a divided allegiance, one half to God, the other to the world and self (1 Corinthians 2:14; 1 Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 12:5).

II. THAT THE VERY GIVING OF THESE LAWS INVOLVED THE ASSURANCE THAT THOSE WHO WERE TO KEEP THEM SHOULD ENTER THE HOLY LAND ("which I give you"). Even so the very fact that so much of the mind of Christ as yet unfulfilled in us has been plainly revealed in the gospel is a pledge to us that God has yet much to do for us and in us, and that he will do it (2 Corinthians 13:9; Philippians 1:6, Philippians 1:9, Philippians 1:10). If it be true that the majority even of earnest Christian people never attain a thorough mastery over self, or an entire conformity to the will of God in this life, then it is certain that this will be wrought in them in the world of spirits beyond our ken; for only this conformity willingly pursued and embraced is our rest (cf. Matthew 11:28, Matthew 11:29; Hebrews 4:10).


(1) as having in our name and stead offered himself in entire self-oblation to the Father (Hebrews 9:14; Hebrews 10:9, Hebrews 10:10),

(2) as being the means of access to and communion with God to them that are justified (John 6:57; Ephesians 2:14 a, Ephesians 2:18); moreover, the voluntary presentation of these sacrifices out of the ordinary routine signified a more personal and earnest pleading of that one Sacrifice by the faithful, as distinguished from that which is more formal and, as it were, obligatory. Again, the meat and drink offering represented the oblation of human labour and care cooperating with Divine grace, for the flour and the oil and the wine were all prepared from the gifts of nature with more or less of industry and skill. Even so, therefore, is it a part of the higher law of Christ, which many do not seem to attain unto, that the earnest pleading of, and reliance upon, and joy in the atonement of Christ shall be always accompanied with the offering of personal service, of good work done for Christ. This cannot truly take the place of the other, any more than the meat offering could supersede or precede the sacrifice; but yet the other is for ever incomplete without it. The most lively faith and devout worship is not acceptable when unaccompanied by the willing tribute of good works (Titus 3:8, Titus 3:14; James 2:17, James 2:26; 2 Peter 1:8).

IV. THAT THIS MEAT AND DRINK OFFERING WAS ALWAYS AND IN EVERY WAY TO BE PROPORTIONATE TO THE BURNT AND SLAIN OFFERINGS PRESENTED. Even so the tribute of our industry and zeal dedicated to God should bear a full proportion to our faith and joy in the atonement of Christ, and should still increase with the increase of these. Nothing is more painful than the entire disproportion often visible between a man's earnest and lively desire to appropriate by faith and devotion the merits of Christ's sacrifice, and the grudging reluctance with which he offers to God of his own time, means, and labour (Matthew 7:21; Matthew 25:44, Matthew 25:45, compared with Jas 2:16; 2 Corinthians 9:6; Hebrews 13:16).

V. THAT IN THIS RESPECT THERE WAS TO BE ONE RULE FOR ALL, WHETHER NATIVE BORN OR STRANGER. Even so in the Church of Christ there is but one law of faith and works. There is indeed no "stranger" where all are brethren, but this very fact means among other things that there is no one having part and lot in the atone-merit of Christ who is relieved by any personal circumstances from the duty of helping together with the rest in the tribute of good works (Revelation 20:12).

VI. THAT THE FIRST-FRUITS OF BREAD WERE TO BE OFFERED, AS WELL AS OF CORN, i.e; of food as prepared by human labour, as of food in its natural state (fruits of the earth). Even so everything which belongs to our life is to be sanctified by dedication to God, however much human art and labour have conspired to make it what it is. It is not only that which seems to come direct from the bountiful lap of nature which is to be thus acknowledged, but that also which through any process of industry has been adapted to our actual wants. The art and ingenuity and contrivance of man have gone wildly astray, and led to fearful abuses, just because they have not been dedicated to God and to pious uses (cf. Luke 11:41; Romans 11:16; Revelation 21:24 b).

VII. THAT PROPER SACRIFICES WERE APPOINTED, WITH PROMISE OF FORGIVENESS, FOR THE BREACH OF ANY OF THE COMMANDMENTS BY WAY OF OMISSION, such omission not being presumptuous. Even so it is certain under the gospel—1. That sins of omission are still sins, albeit done through neglect, or carelessness, or in ignorance. In nothing is Christian morality more lax than on this point. The double law of Christian charity requires an instructed and attentive mind, if it is to be fulfilled; the carelessness, therefore, of Christians as to how they discharge their positive duties towards God and man is distinctly sinful. 2. That such sins will find forgiveness. The far-reaching nature of our obligations as laid down in the New Testament, and the unending consequences of our most heedless acts and words, might well terrify us if it were not so (Matthew 12:37; Matthew 18:6; Matthew 25:27, Matthew 25:45; James 3:2; Revelation 3:2).

VIII. THAT THE WHOLE DIVINE LEGISLATION WAS INCLUDED IN THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE LANGUAGE. Even so there is nothing discretionary, nothing permissive, about the laws of Christian morality. None may be overlooked or ignored from first to last without incurring guilt (Matthew 5:18, Matthew 5:19; James 2:10; Romans 2:22 b).

IX. THAT THE SACRIFICE FOR SINS OF OMISSION WAS A SIN OFFERING, BUT ALSO, AND MORE ESPECIALLY, A BURNT OFFERING. Even so sins of neglect of duty, of supineness and indifference, demand indeed to be expiated by the one offering made for sin, but also to be repaired by a fresh and entire self-dedication to the will and service of God. To acknowledge our past neglects without an earnest effort to fulfill our duty in future is a feeble and imperfect thing (Hebrews 12:12, Hebrews 12:13; 1 Peter 1:13; Revelation 2:5). Note, that the law recognized the distinction between the guilt of the nation and the guilt of the individual, and both had their expiations. It is difficult to say whether there is now any "national" guilt, for Christianity does not recognize nations as such; modern nations correspond to the tribes of Israel, if to anything. But there is of course "collective" guilt, of which each must discharge himself by an individual repentance. The atonement for an individual sin of omission was the same as for one of commission.

X. THAT NO PROVISION WAS MADE UNDER THE LAW FOR THE PARDON OF A WILFUL SIN AGAINST GOD—A SIN OR DEFIANCE. Thus the law brought no satisfaction to the tender conscience, but rather conviction of sin, and longing for a better covenant. Herein is at once contrast and likeness: contrast, in that the gospel hath forgiveness for all sin and wickedness (Mark 3:28; Acts 13:39; Romans 8:1; 1 John 2:1); likeness, in that a marked distinction is made between sins against the light and other sins (Mark 3:29; Luke 23:34; John 19:11; 1 Timothy 1:13; Hebrews 6:4; Hebrews 10:26; 1 John 5:16 b). It is certain that (e.g.) one deliberate lie spoken deliberately, and of malice aforethought, may do more lasting injury to a soul, as far as we can judge, than a whole life of reckless, thoughtless, heedless vice. Compare the case of the Pharisees,(Mark 3:30) with that of the harlots (Luke 7:37) and publicans (Luke 19:2), and that of Ananias and Sapphira with that of the sinful Corinthian.


Numbers 15:22-31


Some sins are more heinous in the sight of God than others; more heinous in their own nature, or by reason of aggravating circumstances. The distinction is familiar to all. Murder is a sin more heinous in the sight of God and man than petty theft. Armed rebellion against just authority is a greater sin than heedless omission to pay due honour and courtesy to a superior in office. Yet old and familiar as the distinction is, it is one in connexion with which men have often fallen into mischievous error. Hence the value of texts like this in Numbers, which throw light upon it.


1. Some sins are described as sins of ignorance. The reference is to faults that are due to error or inadvertence. We all know, to our cost, how liable we are to these. Never a day passes but we omit duty and commit faults, either because we knew no better, or because we were "off our guard" and stumbled before we were aware. These are sins of infirmity, such as cleave to the best of men in the present life.

2. Other sins are done presumptuously. (Literally, "with a high hand.") The matter is one about which there is no dubiety; the person knows well what is right and what is wrong; knowing this, he deliberately and purposely does the wrong. He offends against light, conviction, conscience. This is presumptuous sin. I have said that the distinction between greater and lesser sins is old and familiar. Turning to any Roman Catholic book of devotion, you will find tables in which are enumerated respectively the "mortal sins" and the "venial sins." That is one way of describing the two classes. I very much prefer the terms employed here in God's word. And the superior wisdom of God is to be seen not only in the fitter terms employed, but also in the absence of any attempt, here or elsewhere in the Bible, to give a tabular enumeration of the sins belonging to either class. For one thing, a correct distribution is impossible. The same act which, in ordinary circumstances, one might deem trivial, may in other circumstances be a most heinous crime; whereas what seems a heinous crime may be found to have been committed in circumstances so extenuating, that you hesitate to pronounce it a crime at all. Besides, the distribution, if it were possible to be made, could only do mischief. It is not good for men to be trying to find out how near they may go to the line which separates sins of infirmity from presumptuous sins, without actually passing over. The Bible refuses to give help in that sort of study. It indicates the quality which aggravates offences, so that we may learn to fear it and keep as far off from it as we can.


1. When the party—whether it be the congregation or an individual Israelite—who has sinned inadvertently becomes aware of the sin, a sin-offering is to be presented with the accustomed rites, and the sin will be forgiven (verses 24, 25, 27, 28). The point to be noted here is, that however much the sin may have been due to mere ignorance or inadvertence, the law demanded satisfaction; that is to say, Transgression of God's law is transgression still, though done through mere heedlessness or error. Ignorance and heedlessness may extenuate, but they do not justify; nor do they exempt from suffering the consequences of evil doing. Nor ought this to be deemed strange or harsh. The same principle prevails in human governments. A transgressor does not escape the penalties annexed to his acts because he did not know they were forbidden, or because he acted recklessly. It is a mischievous abuse of the distinction between sins, if occasion is taken from it to make light of any sin. Remember that all sin is, in its own nature, mortal. Paul persecuted "ignorantly and in unbelief;" yet, for having persecuted, he reckoned himself the chief of sinners.

2. As for the presumptuous transgressor, the law holds out to him no hope (verses 30, 31). The reference, no doubt, is, in the first instance, to deliberate violations of the Mosaic constitution—the refusal to accept circumcision, or celebrate the Passover, or observe the Sabbatic rest. For such offences no sacrifice was provided. The person forfeited his place in the covenant society. But this part of the law, like the former part, has an ultimate reference to offences considered as strictly moral. It suggests lessons regarding all deliberate and presumptuous sins. It is a most striking and significant fact, that for such sins the law of Moses provided no sacrifice. What are we to make of this?

(1) It may remind us that there is such a thing as "a sin unto death," and for which "there remaineth no more sacrifice" (Hebrews 10:26, Hebrews 10:27; 1 John 5:16). We believe, indeed, that no penitent, however heinous his sin, will be turned away from God's door unforgiven; but there are dark admonitory texts of Scripture, of which this in Numbers is one, which distinctly warn us that God's mercy will not be trifled with; that there is a point to which, if men go, in resisting the testimony of God's word and Spirit in their consciences, the Spirit will withdraw and give them over to hardness and impenitence.

(2) But there is a brighter side of the matter. "By Christ all that believe are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:39). David's great crime was a "presumptuous sin." The law prescribed no sacrifice for it. The law could suggest to him no hope. What then? He remembered the name of the Lord which was enshrined in the Pentateuch side by side with the law (Exodus 34:6). He confessed and was forgiven.—In Psalms 19:1-14 there occur a remarkable succession of meditations and prayers which, to all appearance, were suggested originally by this law in Numbers, and which may be taken as expressing the thoughts and exercises to which the study of it gave birth in the soul of David. At all events, they so perfectly indicate the practical use to be made of the law that they cannot be too earnestly commended to your consideration. "Who can understand his errors? (Who can make sure that he has noted, or can remember and confess his sins in this kind?) Cleanse thou me from secret faults." "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression."—B.


Numbers 15:15, Numbers 15:16


The treatment of foreigners among the Jews one sign of the impartiality of God. For—

1. They were all "of one blood" (Acts 17:26).

2. The Israelites were "strangers and sojourners with God" in his own land (Leviticus 25:23), as we all are upon earth (1 Chronicles 29:15; 1 Peter 2:11).

3. All are involved in sin. The guilt of the favoured Israelites was greater than that of heathen strangers (Romans 2:6-12).

4. All are included in the one salvation (Romans 3:21-30). For further illustrations see outline on Numbers 9:14.—P.

Numbers 15:30, Numbers 15:31


I. THE GUILT OF PRESUMPTUOUS SINS. The transgressor sinneth "with a high hand" (Hebrews). It is not easy exactly to define sins of presumption or deliberate disobedience, for which there was no expiation by sacrifice. Some crimes involved capital punishment (Le Numbers 20:1, Numbers 20:2, Numbers 20:10; Exodus 21:14; Deuteronomy 17:12), or were followed by fatal judgments by God (Le Numbers 17:10; Numbers 20:4-6). The impossibility of drawing up a complete schedule of willful, presumptuous sins suggests a caution. For their heinous guilt is described by the term "reproacheth the Lord," i.e; blasphemes God in word or act. A presumptuous sinner reproaches God in four ways. He acts as though

(1) his commands were harsh;

(2) his authority was of no account;

(3) his favour was to be little prized;

(4) his threats were to be still less feared (Deuteronomy 29:19, Deuteronomy 29:20).

Such guilt is aggravated under the law of the gospel, inasmuch as God's commands, authority, favour, and threats are invested with greater weight and sanctity through the revelation of his will and his love in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:1-3).


1. Under the law there was no sacrifice to expiate for such sins, but fatal punishment at the hand of man or of God himself.

2. Under the gospel a sacrifice even for willful sin is provided. But as "the condemnation" is for unbelief, the neglect of the Saviour and his sacrifice is the most terrible, though a most common presumptuous sin, for which "there remaineth no more sacrifice" (Hebrews 10:26-29). There is a sin "unto death," which "shall not be forgiven," &c. (Matthew 12:32; 1 John 5:16).

3. The difficulty of exactly deciding, either under the law or the gospel, what sins are beyond the power of expiation, and expose us to be "cut off," adds to their danger. All sins are like poisons, fatal if remedies are not applied. But if some are certainly fatal, and we know not which, what need for faith in the Physician, and prayer that we may be kept from all sins so as to be guarded from presumptuous sins among them (Psalms 19:12-14).—P.


Numbers 15:1-16


I. HE TREATS THE FUTURE AS THE PRESENT. The people had been very near to a land of habitations, and to a time when the requirements of this passage would have been close upon them. That time is now moved into a distant future; but it is equally certain to come, and the requirements are equally practical. The land of promise was Israel's inheritance, and to become its possession, even though Amalekite and Canaanite had just been victorious. God can speak of things that are not as if they were. And after so much gloom as the previous chapter presents, such a rebellious, unmanageable spirit and ominous outlook, there was need of something bright, such as we find in the state of things which these ordinances of offering imply.

II. HE POINTS TO A FUTURE FULL OF SATISFACTION TO THE PEOPLE. It will be approved by them as according with his prediction to Moses: "a good land and a large, a land flowing with milk and honey." They shall have cause for all manner of voluntary offerings over and above the necessary offerings for sin. Fulfilled desires would lead to the fulfillment of vows. The very mention of these sacrifices as possible indicated that Israel would be rich in flocks and herds, in corn and wine and oil. There would be reason for much gratitude in the heart, and consequent gifts of thanksgiving. And thus, in spite of all that may be a cause of despondency in the Christian's present outlook, there will yet be cause of thanksgiving to him. We must not judge the future from our present humiliation and almost vanished hopes, but from the greatness of God's power and purposes. He sees the rich, bright future of his people even when they do not.

III. HE COUNTS ON THE EXISTENCE OF A THANKFUL SPIRIT. There would be abundant cause for such a spirit, and so it was right to provide for any effects that might appear. In spite of all present murmuring and ingratitude, in spite of all sullen compliance with the compulsion to turn back into the wilderness, there would surely some day be a thankful spirit, a devout recognition of God in the midst of prosperity. Thus we may take it that there is something of prophecy, something of reasonable expectation, as well as of appointed duty in the commands here given. Just as the regulations for the Nazarite (Numbers 6:1-27) indicated an expectation that there would be much of the feeling leading men to the Nazarite vow, so here there is an expectation of much in the way of free-will offerings.

IV. These free-will offerings must be joined with offerings from the corn, the oil, and the wine TO MAKE ALL INTO ONE COMPLETE AND ACCEPTABLE SACRIFICE. The desire to do something acceptable to God needs to be directed by a knowledge of what is acceptable. The thankful soul will ever be glad to learn his will. No offering to him is worth anything unless it be a cheerful one; but the most cheerful gifts may be nullified for the want of other needed qualities. Hence there should ever be a careful pondering of God's will in all our offerings to him, so that they may be good and perfect according to the measure of human ability. When most of all we are free agents, then most of all should we look to be directed by necessary commandments from on high.

V. THE PROVISION FOR STRANGLES. The land of promise was to be attractive and beneficent to them as well as to Israel. They also would share in its advantages, and be stirred to a corresponding acknowledgment. Thus ever and anon does God raise his warning against all disposition to exclusiveness. He had the case of the stranger and proselyte ever before him. A word of hope this for Hobab, whose heart may have been cast down within him, when he saw how contemptuously Moses had been treated of late.—Y.

Numbers 15:17-21


I. A DALLY OFFERING, or if not daily, be practically daily. God has spoken so far of free-will offerings, but here is one connected with such a frequent and necessary act as the eating of bread. There are occasions for free-will offerings when evident mercies and peculiar gains prompt to something special in the way of acknowledgment; but men are only too prone to forget the common and daily mercies which in reality are greatest of all. Where we abound in forgetting, God most abounds in reminding. The time of eating bread was an appointed opportunity for acknowledging his daily goodness. The manna was so evidently miraculous, that very little was needed to remind Israel how entirely it was produced without their intervention. It was not the sort of food they would have cultivated. They took it, not that they liked it, but it was the only thing to be got. But bread is a thing on which man spends much care. It goes through so many processes before it reaches his mouth that he easily exaggerates his share in the production of it. Sowing and reaping, grinding and baking, help to hide the good hand of God behind them. Hence the giving of the first from every piece of dough was a deliberate and frequent recognition of dependence on God for the bread in Canaan, as much as for the manna in the wilderness.

II. A DOMESTIC OFFERING. Thus religion was brought into the house to sanctify a common homely duty. There was something to excite the curiosity of children. It was an opportunity of explaining to them, from whose loving-kindness came their daily bread; teaching them lessons of dependence and gratitude in the seed-time and the harvest, by the mill and the oven. Contrast with this the melancholy picture by Jeremiah of the children gathering the wood, the fathers kindling the fire, and the women kneading dough to make cakes to the queen of heaven (Deuteronomy 28:5; Nehemiah 10:37; Psalms 104:14, Psalms 104:15; Jeremiah 7:18; Ezekiel 44:30; Haggai 1:9).—Y.

Numbers 15:22-29


I. THE SERIOUSNESS OF GOD'S EXPECTATIONS. God gave to Israel many and elaborate commandments, in the mode of obeying' which he left nothing to personal discretion. Hence the work of obedience was often a difficult and always a careful one, and sometimes the people might be tempted to say, "Surely this minute and unvarying compliance in outward things cannot be seriously intended." But everything God commands has a reason, even though we see it not. God hides reasons in order that the obedience of faith may be complete. An Israelite quite conceivably might say, "Surely I am not expected to remember all these commandments in all their details." The answer is, that though the commandments might not all be remembered, yet every one of them was important. And so we find that God made it a dangerous, even a deadly thing, knowingly and willfully to disobey them. He has high aims with respect to his people, far higher than they can at present appreciate, and this is the surest way of getting great results. He may seem to be imposing intolerable burdens, but he is really leading us onward in strength and capacity until we shall be able to bear the burdens. Hence the large demands which Christ also makes on his disciples. He came to fulfill the law. His people are not only to do more than others, but much more, and in many ways. Whatever be provided for in the way of pardon and expiation, the standard must not be lowered in the least. God has constituted man to reach great attainments, and he will enable him to reach them, if only the proper means be taken.

II. HIS REMEMBRANCE OF HUMAN INFIRMITY. It is no real contradiction, to them who will consider, that God meant his commandments to be kept, yet knew they would be oftentimes broken. As he was serious in giving the commandments, h, wished the people to be serious in trying to keep them, and serious also in asking why they were not able to keep them. He provided for the commandments being broken. While serious in expectations, he was also considerate and encouraging. He who knows what his people will one day be able to do, knows full well how little they can do at present. He is really more considerate of feeble men than they are of each other. The parable of the servant forgiven of his master, yet refusing to forgive his fellow-servant, finds its application only too often in the difference between God's tender treatment of man, and man's harsh treatment of his fellow-man. God makes allowance for the difficulty of turning away from inveterate habits. He makes allowance for what we know by daily experience is a great infirmity of men, sheer forgetfulness. He considers how many suffer from defective instruction, bad example, and early orphanhood. He can say far more for us than with our utmost skill we can plead for ourselves. He knows all the difficulties we have, in getting at the knowledge and practice of his truth. What comfort could we possibly have in the midst of all our differing sects, confessions, and ceremonies, did we not think of God looking kindly and patiently on the sins of ignorance, and remembering that we know only in part? It was Paul's great comfort to feel that the cruelties of his persecuting days had been committed ignorantly and in unbelief.

III. HIS STRICT REQUIREMENT OF EXPIATION. They were not allowed to say, "We knew it not; therefore it will not be required from us." Evil done in ignorance does not cease to be evil because done in ignorance. Whatever is commanded ought to be done, and if omitted there is loss somewhere in God's universe because of the omission. We must not plead ignorance of the commandment, for the reason of that ignorance lies with man, and not with God. It may not lie with the particular transgressor, but still it lies with man, and therefore the transgression must be confessed and atoned for; and when we humble ourselves in confession of sin committed and service omitted, there is need that we should dwell with much self-examination and seeking for light on the things that have been left undone through ignorance. What we have done that we ought not to have done is much more discoverable than what ought to have been done, yet has been left undone. Many conscientious, earnest, and enlightened Christians have been transgressors through ignorance. Prayer for the doing of God's will on earth as it is done in heaven must be accompanied by an incessant seeking for the knowledge of his will. Assuredly we suffer by our ignorance in this matter, even though, in a certain sense and to a certain extent, this ignorance cannot be helped. This provision here made for atonement, this prophecy, as it were, that many transgressions unconsciously committed would be discovered in due time, is a reminder to us how much we may still have to discover of God's will concerning us. Much as we may know, and much as we may do, there may be large fields of obedience where we have not taken a single step. The great essentials, of course, if we be Christians at all, we cannot be ignorant of, but it is quite possible to know them, yet be ignorant of other things God would also have us know. We are not to look for the laws of life in Scripture only; God has put there such things as are not to be found in nature and the dealings of Ms common providence. We must look for his will in every place where intimations of it are to be found, and be quick in discovering what has been revealed to others. Mark these words of Joseph Sturge:—"It seems to be the will of him who is infinite in wisdom that light upon great subjects should first arise, and be gradually spread through the faithfulness of individuals in acting up to their own convictions."—Y.

Verses 32-36


THE SABBATH-BREAKER (Numbers 15:32-36).

Numbers 15:32

And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness. It is maintained by some that these words were intended to mark the contrast between the previous laws, which were only to be observed when the people came into their own land, and the law of the sabbath, which was strictly enforced during the period of wandering. There is no doubt that such a distinction existed in fact, but there is no reason to find the intentional assertion of it in this expression. The simpler and more natural, and therefore more probable, explanation is, that the incident was recorded after the people had left the wilderness. At the same time, there is nothing unreasonable in ascribing the narrative to Moses himself if we suppose him to have written it at the end of his life, when the people were encamped in the steppes of Moab. It seems probable that the record of the incident was inserted here as an example of a "presumptuous" sin, and of its punishment. A man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. This was clearly presumptuous, because the prohibition to do any work for oneself on the sabbath had been made so clear, and was so constantly forced upon their attention by the failure of the manna on that day, that ignorance could not possibly be pleaded here.

Numbers 15:33

Unto all the congregation, i.e; unto the council of elders, who were the congregation by representation (see on Exodus 18:25, Exodus 18:26).

Numbers 15:34

They put him in ward, (cf. Le Numbers 24:12), because it was not declared what should be done to him. This is perplexing, because the punishment of death had been decreed in Exodus 31:14, Exodus 31:15, and Exodus 35:2. It seems an evasion to say that although death had been decreed, the mode of death had not been fixed; for

(1) it was clearly part of the Divine answer that the offence was really capital (see Exodus 35:35 a), and

(2) it was understood that in such cases death was to be inflicted by stoning (see Le Exodus 20:2; Exodus 24:14; Joshua 7:25; in the last case the command was to bum the delinquents with fire, yet it was rightly taken for granted that they were to be stoned to death first). There are only two explanations which are satisfactory because they are honest.

1. The incident may possibly have occurred between the first institution of the sabbath (Exodus 16:23, Exodus 16:29) and the decree of death to those that broke it. There is nothing in the record as it stands here to contradict such an assumption.

2. It is more likely that it occurred after the departure from Sinai, and that the hesitation in dealing with the criminal was duo not to any real uncertainty as to the law, but to unwillingness to inflict so extreme and so (apparently) disproportioned a punishment for such an offence without a further appeal. If it be said that such unwillingness to carry out a plain command would have been sinful, it is sufficient to answer that Moses and Aaron and the elders were human beings, and must have shrunk from visiting with a cruel death the trivial breach of a purely arbitrary commandment.

Numbers 15:35

Without the camp. That it might not be defiled (cf. Acts 7:58, and Hebrews 13:12).

Numbers 15:36

And he died. He was killed not for what he did, but for doing it presumptuously, in deliberate defiance of what he knew to be the will of God. If the covenant relation was to be maintained between God and Israel, the observance of the sabbath, which was an integral part of that covenant, must be enforced, and he who willfully violated it must be cut off; and this consideration was of exceptional force in this case, as the first which had occurred, and as the one, therefore, which would govern all the rest (cf. Acts 5:5, Acts 5:10). On the punishment of stoning see Le Numbers 20:2; Numbers 24:14; Acts 7:58.


Numbers 15:32-36


We have here a record which is both valuable in itself as revealing the mind of God, and also valuable indirectly as revealing the mind of man. The perversity of human nature, and the extreme subtleness of superstition, are remarkably exemplified in the popular treatment of this record. It has indeed made a deep impression upon men, but that impression has been almost wholly false, and has simply led to superstition. The story of the man who picked up sticks on the Sabbath appears in every Christian age, and every Christian land; but in all cases it is the act itself which is regarded as being so awful and so fearfully avenged. Yet even under the law the act itself was lawful in the priests, as our Lord points out (Matthew 12:5), for the temple fire was supplied with wood; and under the gospel the law of the Sabbath, so far as it was outward and arbitrary, was totally repealed: it passed away like a shadow, leaving us face to face with the substance, the reality which it had obscured—viz; the eternal rest from sin and self which belongs to the kingdom of heaven (Romans 14:5; Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16; Hebrews 4:9, Hebrews 4:10). We keep indeed the Lord's day because as a fact it has been kept from the first, and no one has a right to ignore the universal custom of Christians; but our Sabbath is a spiritual one, for it is that ceasing from our own works by virtue of unselfishness and self-devotion which, as it is the secret of "rest" in this life, so it will be the essence of "rest" in the life to come. It follows that the popular use of this story to enforce the outward observance of a legal Sabbath is simply and purely superstitious, and directly antagonistic to its true teaching. Consider therefore—

I. THAT WHILE ALMOST ALL OTHER ORDINANCES, EVEN CIRCUMCISION AND THE PASSOVER, FELL INTO DISUSE, THE SABBATH REMAINED FIXED, INVIOLABLE, AND ETERNAL. Even so while all outward things may change, while even sacraments themselves might fail, the true Sabbath of the soul can never alter, never cease to be observed and sought. To cease from our own works by a true unselfishness; to live for others by an active love; to find our rest in contemplating good and rejoicing in it; that is to rest from our labours as God did from his, and that is the law of the holy Sabbath which can never be altered. As long as God is God, and man is man, God can only set to us, and we can only set to ourselves, this law as the law of all laws to be observed for ever.

II. THAT THE VIOLATION OF THE SABBATH-LAW WAS NOT PARDONABLE. The sentence of death was confirmed, on special appeal, by God himself. Even so whatever directly violates the law of rest, and so destroys that rest, is fatal and deadly to the soul. For as this rest is the end of all religion, and is to be heaven itself, that which directly militates against it (and that is in the deepest sense selfishness) has never forgiveness, can never be overlooked or suffered to continue.

III. THAT THE ESSENCE OF THE MAN'S CRIME WAS NOT THAT HE GATHERED STICKS ON THE SABBATH, BUT THAT HE GATHERED THEM FOR HIMSELF. For the priests were guiltless, cleaving wood for the altar on the Sabbath; and though the Jews to this day will not make a fire on the Sabbath even to save a man's life, yet it is certain that our Lord would have commended it, and that from an Old Testament point of view. Even so the essence of all sin, and the cause of all wrath, is selfishness. Selfishness is the real and only Sabbath-breaker, because it alone disturbs that Divine rest which stands in conformity to the will of God (see on Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3; 1 John 3:21, 1 John 3:22, &c.).

IV. THAT THE DOOM OF THE SABBATH-BREAKER WAS STONING—A PUNISHMENT INFLICTED BY ALL, AND EXPRESSIVE OF UNIVERSAL CONDEMNATION. Even so the true punishment of sin is that it arrays against us both God and all good and holy beings. A selfish person would find neither sympathy nor allowance in heaven: his soul would fall crushed beneath the weight of silent disapproval and unintended reproach. And so the only way to war against a sin of selfishness upon earth is to enlist the sympathies of all good people against it.

V. THAT THE END OF THE SABBATH-BREAKER WAS DEATH, ALTHOUGH IT WAS NOT IMMEDIATELY EXECUTED. Even so spiritual death is the certain end of selfishness. Amidst the uncertainties of time indeed that death appears to be postponed; selfishness is quite consistent with some amount of religion. But the sentence of death against it is plain and irrevocable, and it will surely be carried out (Matthew 10:38, Matthew 10:39; Matthew 16:25; Luke 12:21; Romans 8:6; Philippians 2:4, Philippians 2:5, Philippians 2:21).


Numbers 15:30-36


Disobedience to the commands of God is ranged under two classes. First, that which has just been considered, disobedience through ignorance; secondly, disobedience from presumption, a bold, conscious, reckless defiance of God and following out of the promptings of self. God indicates that such conduct must be met in a corresponding way. "That soul shall be cut off from among his people, utterly cut off." Notice that while God supposed the case of the whole people sinning ignorantly, he does not make a similar supposition with regard to presumptuous sin. Unanimity in an open and deliberate defiance of God seems to be impossible. It is only too possible, however, that single men should be guilty in this matter, and an illustration of presumptuous sin, from actual life, immediately follows. The people were to be left without excuse for saying that they were in any doubt as to this dangerous sin. Where death was the punishment, the offence could not be too clearly indicated. Let us consider then the doom of the presumptuous sinner, as illustrated by that of the Sabbath-breaker.

I. THE COMMANDMENT WITH RESPECT TO THE SABBATH HAD BEEN PUT IN PECULIAR PROMINENCE. It stands among those ten solemn announcements of God's will, with respect to which we may say that all other commandments existed for them. Surely to sin against any of these was to sin presumptuously. It is reckoned the business of all men to know all the laws under which they live—ignorance is not allowed for a plea,—but with respect to the ten commandments, special means had been taken to impress them on the minds and memories of the people. Even before the fourth commandment had been formally announced, the double provision of manna on the sixth day had helped to give a peculiar significance to the seventh. So it may be said, if we are disobedient in respect of those requirements mentioned repeatedly and held out prominently by Christ and his apostles, we are sinning presumptuously. Who can deny that continued unbelief in the face of pressing requirements for faith is a presumptuous sin? Who can deny that where love and unselfish service are kept back from God and men there is presumptuous sin? Such sins persisted in, against all light, instruction, warning, and appeal, will end in a cutting off from the people, a terrible exclusion from all those gracious rewards which come to the faithful and obedient. Presumptuous sins strike at the very foundation of the throne of God.

II. THERE WAS EVERYTHING TO CALL THE ATTENTION OF THIS TRANSGRESSOR IN THE FACT THAT OTHERS WERE KEEPING THE SABBATH. None could come into the Israelite camp and mistake the Sabbath for some other day, just as none could enter an English town on the day of rest and mistake it for a working day. When the man went out gathering sticks, there was something fresh at every step he took to remind him that he was transgressing a commandment of God; a dozen steps from his own door was enough for this. He went into sin with his eyes open and his selfish will determined to disobey God. Thus also there is presumptuous sin in despising those requirements of Christ which are not only plainly and repeatedly stated by him and his apostles, but carded out, from a sincere heart, in the daily practice of many who rejoice to call themselves his servants. Every Christian who by his life and the results of it shows that in his judgment certain requirements of Christ are all important, becomes thereby a witness to convict others of presumptuous sin. To act on the principle that faith in Christ is not absolutely necessary to salvation, righteousness, and eternal life, is to run counter to the life and emphatic confession of many in all generations of the Christian era. Every life in which Christ is manifested ruling and guiding is a fresh repetition of his great requirements, a fresh evidence of presumptuous sin on the part of those who neglect these requirements.

III. THE SIN APPEARS ALL THE GREATER FROM THE ACT ITSELF BEING SO TRIFLING. The first thought of many on reading the narrative may be, "What severity for such a little offense!" But the more it is looked at the greater the offence appears. There would have been more to say for the man if the temptation had come from some great thing. If a fortune or a kingdom had been in question, then there would have been some plausibly sufficient motive for a great transgression; but to break such a commandment, to run counter to the conduct of the whole camp for a handful of sticks, does it not show how proud-hearted the man was, how utterly careless of all and any of God's regulations? Such a man would have turned to idolatry and profanity on the one hand, or to theft and even murder on the other, at very slight provocation. It was a little thing for Esau to crave a mess of pottage, but it deservedly lost him his birthright when he valued it so little. Thus have men sinned against their Saviour for the paltriest trifles. Peter moves our sympathy when he denies Jesus, for life is dear when closely threatened, and we consider ourselves lest we also he tempted; but when Judas sells his master, and such a master, for thirty pieces of silver, how abominable the act appears! Yet men are constantly turning from Jesus on considerations as paltry and sordid. They will not be religious, because such continual carefulness is required in little things. This man sinned a great and daring sin against God; he was dragged in shame before the whole congregation, and then stoned outside the camp. And what had he by way of set-off? A few sticks. If it was a little thing to do, it was just as little a thing to be left undone. Small as it was, it showed the state of the man's heart, that corroding and hopeless leprosy within, which left no other course but to cut him off from the people.

IV. THUS WE ARRIVE AT THE FULL MEASURE OF THE MAN'S INSULT TO THE MAJESTY OF GOD. We see in what way he reproaches the Lord and despises his word. If this man had gone before Moses, when with the tables in his hands he came fresh from Sinai, and if he had heaped contumely on the messenger, and spat upon the tables, he could not have done more then to show contempt than he did by the gathering of those few sticks on the day which God had claimed for his own. Human governments, with all their imperfections, look upon deliberate defiance of their authority as a thing to be punished severely; what, then, must be done where there is a deliberate defiance of the authority of God? A terrible doom awaits those who despise and ridicule God's ordinances of right and wrong. Though it may not be swift and sudden, it will assuredly be certain and complete. Those who mourn their inability to keep the law of God are separated in his sight from those who contemn that law, far as the east is from the west. Be it ours to feel with David, "rivers of waters run down my eyes, because they keep not thy law" (Psalms 119:136), and not as the fool who says in his heart, There is no God (Psalms 53:1; Psalms 19:12-14).—Y.

Numbers 15:30-32



1. There was need of something special to call attention to this point. Those commandments which concerned himself directly he had to fence in a special way. Commandments against filial impiety, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, covetousness, these concerned man directly, and through him they concerned God; man, therefore, might be trusted to help in vindicating these commands. But those against polytheism, idolatry, profanity, and Sabbath-breaking concerned God directly and man only indirectly. Man, therefore, might not perceive the hurt, even though it was real and most serious. Thus it became needful for God to deal in a specially stern and impressive way with the Sabbath-breaker. His people must be made to perceive and bear in mind that he meant the seventh day to be a holy day. It was as much sacrilege to spend it in common occupations as it was to defile the ark in the holy place.

2. There was need to arrest the attention of such as kept the Sabbath in a negative rather than a positive way. God gave the Sabbath, not for idleness, but for that most valuable of all rest which is gained in quiet, undisturbed communion with God, and meditation on all his wonderful works. Those who employed the Sabbath in solemn and devout approaches to the God of the covenant were delivered from temptation to break the Sabbath. Filled with the fullness of God, there would be no room for base, transgressing thoughts. But no commandment could bring the unwilling heart to God. It might do something to keep the work of the common day away from the hands; it could do nothing to keep the thoughts of the common day out of the heart. The heart was to be sought; it could not be forced, being in its nature beyond force. Many, therefore, would keep the day negatively, in utter idleness, and this idleness itself tended to disobedience. The doing of little things would seem practically the same as doing nothing. So men had to be taught, by terrible examples, not to trifle with holy things. If a man thoughtlessly touches things dangerous to physical life, his thoughtlessness will not deliver him from fatal consequences. If a man sports with poisons, or moves carelessly among machinery, he is very likely to lose his life; so men who trifled with the Sabbath were in great peril. Safety, progress, approval, blessedness, were for those who obeyed from the heart. But those who through heedlessness of the heart disobeyed with the hand had no right to complain when death outside the camp awaited them.

II. THIS SOLEMN VINDICATION HAS AN IMPORTANT BEARING ON THE CHRISTIAN DAY OF REST. This is not the place to take up even a fragment of the interminable discussion on the obligation of the Sabbath. But is not the very fact of such a discussion evidence that the lapse of the obligation is by no means a tiring clearly and easily to be seen?

1. This solemn vindication hints to us that it is a prudent thing to be on the safe side. Thus we may both escape great dangers and secure great blessings. To spend the day of rest just as we please is a claim, not of conscience, but of self-will. It cannot be pretended that ceasing from work one day in seven is a hurt to one's self or to the world. Practically, all Christians confess the need of a day of rest. If God so blessed one day in seven to those who knew him as he might be known in the obscurities and distances of the Jewish economy, is it not reasonable to expect that in the fuller light and nearer approach of God in Christ Jesus, a seventh day of rest, rightly used, may be the means of the greatest blessing. We are now under the perfect law of liberty; and because it is a law of liberty it is all the more a law to the liberated soul. We use not our liberty for an occasion to the flesh; we ought to use it for an occasion to the Spirit. God blessed and hallowed the seventh day, because in it he rested from his work of creation. What a propriety then in keeping the first day of the week, as that in which the Christian's Master rested from temptation, toil, and his victorious struggle with death and Hades!

2. This solemn vindication should make us considerate of all who are called by the ugly name of Sabbatarian. No doubt with regard to the Sabbath there has been much of bigotry, ignorance, and of melancholy misinterpretations of the Scripture; but the weak brother who reads this narrative of the Sabbath-breaker's doom may well be excused if to stronger minds he seems ridiculously precise. Christ will deal with us as severely as his Father dealt with the Sabbath-breaker if we make one of his little ones to offend. It is necessary above all things to be safe. We must not confound the scrupulosity of the weak with the scrupulosity of the Pharisee. That, indeed, is always abominable—attending to little external things, and neglecting the weightier matters of the law. God's service, after all, whether on week day or Sunday, consists in the things we do rather than in those we refrain from doing. God, we may be sure, will take care that the day of rest is not narrowed out of harmony with the liberty of the gospel. As there were matters of necessity provided for under the law, so there is like provision under the gospel. A man of right spirit will not misinterpret the necessities. Jeremiah Horrocks, the young clergyman who first observed the transit of Venus, is said to have made his discovery on the Lord's Day, without allowing it in the least to interfere with his duties in the church. One of the most important principles of his steam-engine flashed into the mind of Watt as he was walking along Glasgow Green one Sunday morning. And it was one Sunday morning that Carey, entering his pulpit in India, received the new regulation prohibiting suttee. He at once sent for his pundit, and completed the translation into Bengalee before night.—Y.

Verses 37-41


THE LAW OF TASSELS (Numbers 15:37-41).

Numbers 15:38

Bid them that they make them fringes. צִיצִת, probably tassels. It seems to signify something flower-like and bright, like the blooms on a shrub; the word צִיץ. is applied to the shining plate of gold upon Aaron's head-band (Exodus 28:36). In Jeremiah 48:9 it seems to mean a wing, and in Ezekiel 8:3 צִיצִת is a lock of hair. The exact meaning must be gathered from the context, and on the whole that suggests a tassel rather than a fringe. The word גְּדִלִיס, used in the parallel passage Deuteronomy 22:12, seems to have this meaning. The Septuagint renders it by κράσπιδα, which is adopted in the Gospels (see on Matthew 23:5). In the borders of their garments. Literally, "on the wings," ἐπὶ τὰ πτερύγια. The outer garment (בֶּגֶד here, כְּסוּת in Deuteronomy 22:12) was worn like a plaid, so folded that the four corners were dependent, and on each of these corners was to be hung a tassel. It was also used as a coverlet by the poor (Exodus 22:27). That they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue. Rather, "that they put a string (or thread) of hyacinth-blue upon the tassel of the wing." Septuagint, κλῶσμα ὑακίνθινον. This may have been a blue string with which to fasten the tassel to the corner of the garment, as if it were the stalk on which this flower grew; or it may have been a prominent blue thread in the tassel itself. The later Jews seem to have understood it in this sense, and concerned themselves greatly with the symbolical arrangements of the blue and other threads, and the method in which they were knotted together, so as to set forth the whole law with all its several commandments. The later Jews, however, have always contrived, with all their minute observance, to break the plain letter of the law: thus the modern talith is an under, and not an upper, garment.

Numbers 15:39

That ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments. It was indeed a minute and apparently trivial distinction, and yet such an one as would most surely strike the eye, and through the eye the mind. It was like the facings on a uniform which recall the fame and exploits of a famous regiment. The tasseled Hebrew was a marked man in other eyes, and in his own; he could not pass himself off as one of the heathen; he was perpetually reminded of the special relation in which he stood to the Lord, whose livery (so to speak)—or, to use another simile, whose colours—he wore. No doubt the sky-blue string or thread which was so prominent was meant to remind him of heaven, and of the God of heaven. And that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring. The office of the tassels was to promote a recollected spirit. As it was, their fickle minds were always ready to stray away towards any heathen follies which their restless eyes might light upon. The trivial but striking peculiarity of their dress should recall them to the thought that they were a peculiar people, holy to the Lord.

Numbers 15:41

I am the Lord your God. This intensely solemn formula, here twice repeated, may serve to show how intimately the smallest observances of the Law were connected with the profoundest and most comforting of spiritual truths, if only observed in faith and true obedience. The whole of religion, theoretical and practical, lay in those words, and that whole was hung upon a tassel. It is further to be noted that this precept was given during the years of exile, and probably given as one which they could keep, and which would be helpful to them, at a time when almost all other distinctive observances were suspended.


Numbers 15:37-41


In the ordinance of the tassels we have at once the height and depth of the old dispensation—the most trivial of outward observances married to the deepest truths and greatest blessings of true religion. Spiritually we are to see here the distinctive marks of the faithful Christian which separate between him and the children of this world. Consider therefore—

I. THAT THE TASSELS WERE DESIGNED TO BE UNMISTAKEABLE MARKS OF DISTINCTION AND SEPARATION BETWEEN ISRAEL AND ALL OTHER PEOPLES; and that at a time when many other distinctions had fallen into abeyance. Even so it is exceeding necessary that the faithful disciple (who is the true Israelite) should not only be different, but be obviously different, from others; and this especially in an age when the old distinctions between the Church and the world are so greatly broken down. Nothing can be more abhorrent to God than a crypto-Christianity, which is ashamed of itself and endeavours to efface all visible distinctions between itself and the irreligion of the world. Christians were to be emphatically "a peculiar people," and if they seem "peculiar" to those who are not governed by Christian motives and principles, so much the better. It does not follow that they are right because they are unlike others, but at any rate they would not be right if they were like them (Rom 12:2; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 7:26; James 4:4; 1 Peter 2:9).

II. THAT THE DISTINCTION HERE COMMANDED WAS TRIVIAL IN ITSELF, AND IN AFTER AGES TURNED TO SUPERSTITION AND ARROGANCE (Matthew 23:5). Even so all external distinctions, however harmless and even venerable by association, have an unalterable tendency to substitute themselves for the inward differences which they symbolize. Consider the reproach which has overtaken the very name of "Christian"—a name so full of significance, warning, and encouragement—among heathens and Mahometans. And how little effect the high-sounding names of Christian bodies have had upon their lives, save indeed in fostering arrogance and self-righteousness. No external distinction is of any value unless it has a real correspondence to something inward and spiritual (Romans 2:29; Rom 14:17; 1 Corinthians 8:8; Galatians 6:15).

III. THAT THE TASSELS WERE INTENDED TO PRODUCE AND TO FOSTER A HABIT OF RE-COLLECTEDNESS, ESPECIALLY AMONG STRANGERS. The tasseled Hebrew was perpetually reminded that he shared in privileges, responsibilities, and dangers which the nations knew nothing of. Even so the faithful Christian has no greater or more necessary safeguard than a habit of recollectedness, and he is bound to cultivate it carefully by prayer and self-discipline. In the midst of innumerable entanglements, confusions, and perplexities, he has continually to call to mind whose he is and whom he serves. Mixing, conversing, dealing in every way with those whose aims, motives, and principles are avowedly worldly and selfish, he has to check himself at every turn by this recollection; and only thus can he escape from sin (Philippians 2:15, Philippians 2:16; 1 Timothy 6:1, 1 Timothy 6:2; Titus 2:8).

IV. THAT THE HYACINTHINE BLUE OF THE STRING, OR THREAD, WAS MEANT TO REMIND THE ISRAELITE OF HEAVEN, AND THE GOD OF HEAVEN (cf. the "jacinth" of Revelation 9:17). Even so there must be in the faithful soul a perpetual remembrance of heaven as at once his home and goal; for it is this remembrance only mingling with all other thoughts which will keep him from the subtle greed and from the base attractions of earth (Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 12:1, Hebrews 12:2; 1Pe 2:11; 2 Peter 3:12, 2 Peter 3:13). And note that this spirit of recollectedness in these two particulars, viz; whose we are, and whither we are bound, is the true and distinctive adornment of all faithful Christians, no matter in what diversity of outward circumstance they may be arrayed. And this, without the least ostentation or self-consciousness, will at once make them known to one another (cf. Malachi 3:16), and mark them out for an instinctive wonder and admiration in the eyes of all who are seeking after God.

V. THAT THE ONE GREAT AND BLESSED TRUTH WHICH GAVE REALITY AND MEANING TO THIS DISTINCTION WAS, "I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD." Even so whatever may distinguish the faithful Christian from others has no other foundation than this, that God is his God—his in Christ, his in a sense which is beyond words or thought. It is not the fact that he is more righteous than others which any distinctive conduct or observance is meant to proclaim; but simply that God has been more merciful to him, and has drawn him closer to himself in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:21-23; 1 John 1:3; 2 Peter 1:4).


Numbers 15:37-41


This law is one of the many illustrations of the minute particulars prescribed by the laws of Moses. We find other illustrations in precepts respecting ploughing (Deuteronomy 22:10), sowing (Deuteronomy 22:9), reaping (Le Numbers 23:22), threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4), killing (Le Numbers 17:13), cooking (Exodus 23:19), clothing (Deuteronomy 22:11), &c. All these laws had certain moral or spiritual significations. The precept respecting the fringes teaches us—


1. To remind us of spiritual truths. The peculiarity of the Jew's dress was a witness to him that he belonged to "a peculiar people" (Deuteronomy 14:2) separated unto God. Possibly the blue colour (cf. Exodus 28:31) was intended to remind him that he belonged to a kingdom of priests.

2. Such memorials are needed because of our treacherous memories, which, like sieves, may let pure water run away, but retain the sediment and rubbish.

3. And they are valuable for the sake of others. The Jews taught that even a blind man must wear the fringe, because others could see it. Strangers may be impressed by our memorial services, even if we are blind to their significance. Our children and their descendants may learn by them. Illustrations—Passover (Exodus 12:24-27); altar and stones on Ebal and Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27:1-8; Joshua 8:30-35). The Lord's Supper, by which we "show Christ's death till he come."


1. Because of our inveterate tendency to exaggerate the importance of what is external. Hence fringes were "enlarged" (Matthew 23:5) and phylacteries were invented (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). The simple supper of the Lord has been developed into the pompous ceremonies of the mass.

2. And thus to stop at the symbol and thereby prevent it. Illustrations—The serpent of brass idolized (2 Kings 18:4); the ark treated as a charm (1 Samuel 4:3).

3. And by so doing to "come short" of the promise of salvation which is "in Christ Jesus," who is "the way, and the truth, and the life." Nevertheless, God does not take away symbolic memorials from us, but throws on us the responsibility of using "as not abusing" them.—P.


Numbers 15:37-40


I. A NEED TO BE PROVIDED FOR. These numerous and all-important commandments must, if such a thing is possible, be kept continually before the minds of the people. God has already provided for the need, in fact, by appointing an atonement for sins of ignorance. These would be very largely sins of forgetfulness, and so, as prevention is better than cure, it was desirable to guard against forgetfulness. Sins of ignorance, when committed, may be atoned for, but it is better, if such a thing can be, not to commit them at all. Hence God, knowing the natural forgetfulness of the human heart, and bow many cares, pleasures, novelties, and objects of interest there are to draw it away from the consideration of his will, recognizes a need to be provided for in a special way. The will of God, moreover, needed to be constantly remembered. It bears on all our conscious life, and through that in many unknown ways on the unconscious life beneath. There was no action of an Israelite's life but could be done in God's way or in his own. A moment's incaution, and he might step into some great transgression. The law through Moses was a thing of details, and to neglect the least detail was to impair the whole. Evidently this need has still to be provided for. The law through Christ for our life is also one needing to be constantly remembered. There is no moment when it does not stand before us in all its spirituality, and its searching for inward conformity. Nor can we pretend that our hearts are any better, any more in sympathy with God, than those in Israel of old. The human heart under Christ needs to be provided for just as much as under Moses. Thus we may be sure that if God saw the need then, he sees it equally now.

II. GOD'S PROVISION FOR THE NEED. He provided something that should always be before the eye. Fringes or tassels on the garments were ever-present remembrancers. Many times a day the wearer could not but cast his eye on this addition to his garment, and he was at once to recollect that it was something not added by his own fancy, but that he might ask himself the question, "Am I at this moment doing the will of God?" Nor on his own garment only was the fringe of use; every time his eye rested on the garments of others, similarly adorned, he was reminded to treat them in a just, godly, and brotherly fashion, as being also Israelites, holy and privileged as himself (Galatians 6:10). And may we not say that we have reminders, so various, numerous, and increasing, as to the claims of God upon us, that they amount to something like a fringe on our garments? There may be nothing of distinct Divine appointment in many of these reminders, but if they are such as naturally turn our attention to holy things, then the presence of them adds very much to our responsibility. Every Bible that we see; every passage of Scripture set in other writing; every church spire rising to the sky, or even the humblest building given to religious uses; every known minister of religion, or indeed any one known to be a Christian; every grave-yard and burial procession—these and many such have all in them something of the fringes. We cannot afford to despise any helps towards knowledge and obedience. He provided the same memorial for all. He did not count it sufficient there should be any memorial the individual might choose. There was to be no room for individual caprice. The memorial was a fringe, and it was always blue. Thus, while there are many things which may be used to remind us of God's will, there are some especially designed for this end. Those who accept the permanent obligation of the Lord's Supper are brought, on every observance of it, face to face with him whom only too easily we forget. "Do this in remembrance of me." But since all do not accept this obligation, and those who do meet in different ways and with varying frequency, we can hardly find here that which is to correspond in the gospel with the fringes in the law. Is there any one settled and definite thing which Christ gives us now the same for us all? May we not answer from John 16:13 : "When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all (the) truth"? Where Moses gave commandments, Christ gave promises, which are only commandments in another form. We have now to do not with a body of positive precepts, to be understood and obeyed in our natural strength, but with a living and life-giving Spirit, and the more we have the life of that Spirit in us, the more we shall be preserved from errors in doctrine, and from omissions, exaggerations, and defects in duty. We are not now called to manufacture lifeless and merely typical observances according to a pattern. Obedience now is to be a growth; and if there is heavenly, pure, and energetic life in us, then we shall not be lacking in strength, beauty, and fruitfulness. What signification, if any, may there be in the colour? Perhaps it is not fanciful to suppose that it may have been chosen as having correspondence with the tint of the sky—something to help in turning the thoughts of the people away from earth to him who dwells on high. Tennyson reminds us (‘In Memoriam,' 51.) of

"The sinless years
That breathed beneath the Syrian blue."

III. THE LIMITED USE OF GOD'S PROVISION. It was as good a monitor as could be given in the circumstances, always moving about with the person who had to remember. But remembrance, even supposing it exact and opportune, would only reveal more and more the inevitable weakness in action. What could the fringes help in the doing? Could they turn men from seeking after their own hearts and their own eyes? By the law is the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20). Hence the better their knowledge of the law in its requirements, and the more exact their remembrance, the more painful and depressing would be the consciousness of their own sin. The holier they became in outward compliances, the more would they feel their pollution and their separation of heart from God. If any one ever knew the value of the fringes, we should judge it to have been David, yet read Psalms 119:1-176, and notice how he there gathers up his earnest longings for conformity with God's law, and not unfrequently seems to tread the verge of despair. We must have more than mere admonitions, however frequent and earnest, if we are to do God's will and be in truth holy before him. Hence we come back to that work of the Spirit of Christ, putting within us new life, and that love which is the best of all monitors. The fringe above all fringes, the riband made of heaven's own blue, is to have love in the heart. Love never forgets. It has its object ever in its thoughts—first in the morning, last at night, and flitting even through dreams. Fringes may recall words and outward ceremonies, but love discovers fresh applications and larger meanings. Love does with the mere words of commandment as the chemist does with material things, ever discovering in them new combinations, properties, and powers (John 14:23-26).—Y.

Numbers 15:41


I. GOD RECALLED A GREAT DEED. I brought you out of the land of Egypt."‘

1. It was deliverance from a bitter bondage. The Israelites had been making light of it of late, but in Egypt it was grievous indeed (Exodus 1:13, Exodus 1:14; Exodus 2:23; Exodus 3:7; Exodus 6:9). So God, by the work of his incarnate Son, delivered the world from a bitter bondage. "Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the whole world." The act of Divine power by which Jesus rose from the grave did not sweep away all difficulties and make life henceforth a path of roses. But it is a great deal to stand on this side, historically, of the sepulcher from which the stone was rolled away. The generations before the resurrection of Jesus were, as we may say, in Egypt, waiting deliverance. The world since that event stands, as it were, delivered. He who brought life and immortality to light destroyed him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and delivered them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Hebrews 2:14, Hebrews 2:15).

2. It was a deliverance worked out entirely by God. "I brought you out, &c." There was no struggle against Pharaoh on the part of the people. We do not see the prisoner within conspiring with the deliverer outside. The bondage was so bitter, the subjection so complete, that the people were not moved to conspiracy and insurrection. We read constantly in history of servile and subject races winning their way to freedom through the bloody struggles of many generations, but these Israelites before Pharaoh were like oxen broken to the plough. They groaned, but they submitted. And in this Egyptian sort of bondage the world was fast before Christ came to deliver. Men groaned under the burdens of life; they were filled with the fruits of sin; they yielded at last to tile grasp of death. All was accepted as a mysterious necessity; men did not protest and struggle against calamity and death. The deliverance is from Jesus, and in it we have no hand. "When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). A delivered world was even incredulous as to its deliverance. It could not believe that as by one man came sin and death, so by one also had come conquest over sin, death, and the devil. Thomas, the very disciple, doubts, and before long Paul has to write 1 Corinthians 15:1-58. Jesus may say to the world for which he died and rose again, "I brought you out of spiritual Egypt."

3. While the deliverance was being worked out, the Israelites were scarcely conscious of what was being done. They saw the plagues, but only as wonders, stupendous physical calamities. They felt the grasp of Pharaoh alternately tightening and relaxing, but little did they comprehend of that great, significant struggle going on between Jehovah and Pharaoh. They waited, as the prize of victory waits on the athletes while they contend; it knows nothing of the energy and endurance it has evoked. And so it was and is in Christ's redeeming work. It is wonderful to notice how unconscious the world was of that great work which was transacted between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, between the cradle of Jesus and his opened grave. The world looked upon him, and to a large extent it still looks, in any light but the right one. Let us know him first then, and fully in all that the work means, as Deliverer from spiritual Egypt.

II. THE PURPOSE OF THIS GREAT DEED. "I brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God." It is one thing for Israel to be brought out of Egypt; quite another for it to understand why it has been brought out. And so we find the people complaining of the wilderness quite as much as they had done of Egypt. Their expectations pointed in a direction opposite to God's purpose, and never could the wilderness become a better place than Egypt until they did appreciate God's purpose and make it their own. God did not bring them out as one might bring a man out of prison, and then say, "Go where you like." They were brought out of a bitter bondage to enter upon a reasonable service, otherwise the wilderness would prove only an exchange of suffering, not a release from it. In like manner we need to ask how the world may be made better by the redeeming work of Christ. The difference between the state of the world before the death of Christ and since does not look as great from certain points of view as one might expect. A countless host of those for whom he died and rose again nevertheless goes about in a bewilderment and unbelief equal to that of the Israelites in the wilderness. Christ died for us and rose again, that we, rising with him, might live not to ourselves, but to him (Romans 6:4, Romans 6:10-13, indeed the whole chapter; Romans 12:1; Romans 14:7-9; 1Co 3:22, 1 Corinthians 3:23; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 2 Corinthians 5:15-18; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 1:20, Philippians 1:21; Colossians 3:1-3). Deliverance from Egypt is not equivalent to entrance into the promised land. The wilderness is a critical place for us, and all depends on what heed we take to this purpose of God. We must receive the gospel in its integrity. If the full purpose of God becomes our full purpose, then all will be right. Christ died for us, not that we might just escape the penalty and power of sin, as something painful to ourselves, and know the luxury of a washed conscience; not that we might just pass into a perfect blessedness beyond the tomb; but that, becoming pure and blessed, we might engage in the service of God and set forth his glory. We must be pleased with what pleases him. The work of Christ brings us that highest of all joy, to serve God with a perfect heart and a willing mind.—Y.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 15". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-15.html. 1897.
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