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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 2

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-34



Numbers 2:1

The Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron. Probably when they had finished the census, and brought the results into the tabernacle.

Numbers 2:2

Shall pitch by his own standard. We are not told how they had pitched hitherto; the tribal and family order now enforced was the natural order, but in the absence of precise directions would sometimes be departed from. With the ensign. Rather, "ensigns" (othoth in the plural). Each tribe, it would seem (see Numbers 2:31), had its standard (degel), and each family in the tribe its ensign (oth). Far off. Rather, "over against," i.e; facing the tabernacle, with a certain space between.

Numbers 2:3

On the east. The van, the post of honour. The general direction indeed of their march was northwards, not eastwards; but nothing can obliterate the natural pre-eminence given to the east by the sunrise, the scattering of light upon the earth, the daily symbol of the day-spring from on high. The standard of the camp of Judah. Judah led the way not because he was the greatest in number, for the order of the tribes was not determined by this consideration, but because of his place in prophecy, and as the ancestor of the Messiah (Genesis 49:10). According to Aben Ezra and other Jewish expositors, the device upon the standard of Judah was a young lion, and this agrees with Revelation 5:5. The same authorities assign to Reuben a man, to Ephraim an ox (cf. Deuteronomy 33:17), to Dan an eagle. If it were so, we should find in these banners the origin of the forms of the living creatures in the visions of Ezekiel and St. John (Ezekiel 1:26; Ezekiel 10:1; Revelation 4:4-6), unless, indeed, the devices on the standards were themselves taken from the symbolic forms of the cherubim in the tabernacle, and these in their turn borrowed from the religious art of Egypt. But the tradition of the Jews is too fluctuating to carry any weight. The Targum of Palestine assigns to Judea the lion, but to Reuben a stag, to Ephraim a young man, and to Dan a basilisk serpent.

Numbers 2:5

Next unto him. Whether the leading tribe occupied the center or one extreme of its own side of the encampment is a matter of mere speculation.

Numbers 2:9

These shall first set forth. No order to set forth had been given, but the necessity of doing so was understood, and is here anticipated, as in Numbers 1:51.

Numbers 2:14

Reuel. Probably an error of transcription for Deuel, which actually appears here in many MSS. The Septuagint, however, has Raguel (see Numbers 1:14; Numbers 7:42, etc.). The error is utterly unimportant, except as proving the possibility of errors in the sacred text.

Numbers 2:17

Then the tabernacle … shall set forward. Thus it was provided that, whether at rest or on the march, the Divine habitation should be exactly in the midst of Israel.

Numbers 2:24

All that were numbered of the camp of Ephraim. All the descendants of Rachel, forming at this time the smallest of the four divisions, although destined to become very numerous. Their association in the camp was continued in the promised land, for the greater part of their territory was coterminous. Subsequently, however, the great division of the kingdom separated Benjamin for ever from his brethren. In the third rank. Immediately behind the tabernacle. This position is clearly alluded to in Psalms 80:1, Psalms 80:2.

Numbers 2:25

The standard of … Dan. In the light of its subsequent history, it is remarkable that this tribe should at this time have been so prominent and so honoured. Dan is, so to speak; the Judas among the twelve. In history he ends by melting away into the heathen among whom he intruded himself. In the sacred writings he ends by being omitted altogether; he has no part in the new Jerusalem—perhaps on account of the idolatry connected with his name (see Judges 18:1-31; Revelation 7:1-17).

Numbers 2:34

So they pitched. The Targum of Palestine (which embodies the traditional learning of the Palestinian Jews of the 17th century) says that the camp covered a space of twelve square miles. Modern writers, starting from some measurements of the Roman camps given by Polybius, compute the necessary space at three or three and a half miles square. This would require the strictest discipline and economy of space, and makes no provision for cattle; but supposing that the women and children were closely packed, it might suffice. It is, however, evident that there would be very few places in the wilderness, if any, where more than three square miles of fairly level ground could be found. In the plains of Moab the desired room might perhaps have been found, but scarcely anywhere in the wilderness of Paran. We must conclude, therefore, that this order of encampment was an ideal order, beautiful indeed by reason of its faultless regularity and equality, but only to be attained in practice as circumstances should permit, more or less. Indeed, that the foursquare symmetry of the camp had an ideal meaning and significance more really, because more permanently, important than its actual realization at the time, is evident from its recurrence again and again in the Apocalyptic writings (see Ezekiel 48:20, and especially Revelation 21:16). It is impossible to help seeing that the description of the heavenly Zion is that of a city, but of a city modeled upon the pattern of the camp in the wilderness. Here is one of those cases in which the spiritual significance of an order is of such importance that it matters comparatively little whether it could be literally carried out or not.


Numbers 2:1-34


We have here, spiritually, the Church of God in its order and its beauty and its balanced proportion of parts; resting inwardly upon, and ranged outwardly around, the abiding presence of the Almighty, and thus prepared either to abide in harmony and safety, or to set forward without confusion and without fear. Consider, therefore, on a broad view of this chapter—

I. THAT THE ONE AND ONLY CENTRE OF THE WHOLE CAMP, of all its symmetry and all its order, WAS THE TABERNACLE OF GOD. About this were arranged in the inner lines of encampment the priests and Levites, in the outer lines the rest of Israel; the tent of the Presence was, as it were, the jewel of priceless worth, of which the camps of Levi formed the inner case, the other camps the outer casket. Even so the whole Church of God, in its broadest extent, is centered upon and drawn up about the spiritual presence of God in Christ, according to that which is written: "I will dwell in them, and walk in them." Whether for rest or for progress, for safety or success, all depends exclusively upon, all can be measured only with reference to, that Presence in the midst of her. She is herself, in the truest sense, the living shrine, the spiritual casket, which encloses and enfolds this Divine jewel. About this Presence—"over against" it, full in view of it, looking straight towards it, albeit separated yet by an uncrossed interval—all the tribes of God are drawn up, all of them near, all equally near, save that those are nearest who are specially devoted to the waiting upon that Presence.

II. That as the glory and beauty of the encampment depended as to its internal symmetry upon the presence of God in the midst of it, so IT DEPENDED AS TO ITS OUTWARD PERFECTION UPON THE ORDERLY ARRANGEMENT AND HARMONY OF ITS PARTS, Every tribe and every family had its place, knew its place, kept its place, mutually supporting and supported by all the others. Even so God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, in all the Churches of the saints. Conflicting aims, rivalries, counter-workings, cannot be in the Divine ideal. Towards them that are without, in the face of the difficulties and hostilities of the Church's earthly pilgrimage, an absolute discipline, a perfect oneness of purpose, a universal walking by the same rule and minding the same thing, is an essential part of the truth as it is in Jesus (John 17:21, John 17:22; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 2:2; Philippians 3:16).

III. That this perfect order and discipline was not attained by ignoring or effacing the natural divisions and distinctions of the people, and by making of each individual an isolated unit before God; but, on the contrary, BY RECOGNIZING AND UTILIZING HUMAN DIVISIONS. "Every man shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father's house." Even so within the common life of the Church of Christ there is room and use for many strong and lasting divergencies of Christian character and cast of thought due to national or social or educational distinctions. Variety embraced m unity is the law of the Spirit. There is a true sense in which all Christian truth and virtue are the proper heritage of each Christian soul, which each ought to possess; but there is also a true sense in which the Christian virtues, and even the complemental truths of the Christian faith, are rather distributed among the various portions of the Church than equally spread over all, or perfectly combined in any one. If we would have a true conception of the full beauty and power of Christianity, we must embrace in one view all the ages of faith, we must have respect unto east and west and north and south alike. If our own sympathies are chiefly with one or other, there will be the more reason to give heed that we do not overlook the excellence most remote from our own. Dan and Simeon, whatever might be said or feared of them, had their place in the camp of God as well as Judah and Ephraim.

Consider, again, on a closer inspection of the camp—

1. That it lay foursquare in twelve great divisions, with the tabernacle in the, center. And this arrangement is clearly of spiritual import, because it is carefully preserved in the prophetic visions of Ezekiel and St. John. The heavenly city, which is the camp of the saints, lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth (Revelation 20:9; Revelation 21:16). And this seems to denote the absolute and unbroken equality, and the equal development in every direction, of the heavenly state, wherein it contrasts so strongly with the strange inequality and the one-sided character of all earthly good. The Church should lie foursquare because she should show an equal front, and have attained a like extension in every direction, in whatsoever way regarded. And notice here that the superior perfection of the gospel is shown herein, that the holy city not only lieth as a perfect square, but standeth as a perfect cube,—"the length and the breadth and the height of it are equal" (Revelation 21:16),—an impossibility bordering on the grotesque, in order to emphasize the entire absence of anything one-sided, unequal, or imperfect. Again, the holy city, like the camp of Israel, is laid out with careful respect unto the number twelve, because this is the full and perfect number of the tribes, and intimates that the Church is of all, and for all, who can in any wise be reckoned as the people of God.

2. That the foursquare arrangement of the camp was ideal and could only be approximately realized in the wilderness through the evil necessity of things: the camps could not be pitched across rugged mountains or precipitous ravines, such as constantly lay in their way. Even so the ideal picture of the Church drawn in the New Testament has never been adequately realized, nor perhaps can be, amidst the confusions and contradictions of time. Her harmony and symmetry are grievously marred for want of room, and through the impracticable nature of men and circumstances. Nevertheless, the Divine ideal lives before her eyes and within her heart, and it is the unchanging hope of every faithful soul to behold it realized, sooner or later, in the good providence of God. In the mean time, when outward regularity was impossible, the one thing for each tribe to do was to pitch as near to the tabernacle, on its own side, as possible. Even so the practical wisdom and duty of every Church is to abide as near to God as it can according to the truth and order it has received; the nearer to God, the closer to one another.

3. That, among the tribes, Judah held the van, and his standard led the way, on which was borne aloft "the lion of the tribe of Judah." Even so Christ—concerning whom "it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda" (Hebrews 7:14)—must always go before us in the way, and all the hosts of light must follow after him.

4. That Dan at this time was very large in numbers, and held an honourable place, and was a standard-bearer; yet afterwards he dwindled, and left the place given him by Providence, and sought another for himself, and fell into idolatry, and was struck out at last from the list of the Israel of God. Even so it happens that some particular Church or some individual at one time shall stand high, and be a leader, and hold a place of command, yet afterwards shall swerve from the right way, and fall into some idolatry, and be cast out as evil at the last. But it is not necessary to seek to discover wickedness in the first estate because it is in the last; as in Dan it is not possible to find any cause of wrath while he walked with the others in the wilderness; and even Judas must have been sincere at first, and was not discerned from the other eleven.

5. That at this time the children of Leah were all together, and that this union was apparently made sure for ever by their dwelling side by side in Canaan. Yet when the great division came, Ephraim and Manasseh went one way, Benjamin the other. Even so it often happens that those who have grown up together as brethren in the common enjoyment of spiritual blessings and practice of religious duties, are thereafter widely separated by some great sifting, and take opposite sides on some fundamental question.


Numbers 2:1-34


The children of Israel in the wilderness were a divinely-framed figure or parable of the Church of Christ. Devout readers of the story of the long march from Egypt to Canaan have always been haunted with such an irrepressible feeling of this figurative and spiritual intention, that traces of it are apparent in the familiar speech of all the Christian nations. Christians everywhere speak of redemption from bondage, the wilderness of this world, the wilderness journey, the heavenly manna, the "Rock of ages cleft for me," the land of promise, Pisgah views of the better land, the dark Jordan, the promised inheritance. The muster at Sinai is a chapter in the long parable; a chapter as replete as any with instruction regarding the Church of God.

I. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY. The enumeration at Sinai was not an ordinary census. It took note only of such as were fit to bear arms. These opening chapters of Numbers are a muster-roll. The Church in this world is the Church militant. Christ is a Man of war (Psalms 45:3-5). Every true follower of Christ is called to be a soldier, and to fight a good fight. There is no place in Christ's host either for neutrals or non-combatants (Matthew 12:30).


1. Not settled in permanent quarters. The wilderness was not a place to build cities in or to plant vineyards. As little is the world a continuing city to Christ's saints. Compare "this tabernacle," 2 Corinthians 5:1; 2 Peter 1:14. We are passing travelers here.

2. Marching to an appointed place. In some sense all men—believers and unbelievers alike—are on the march. Compare the Anglo-Saxon prince's comparison of human life to the flight of the bird out of the dark night, through the lighted hall, and out by the opposite door into the darkness again. God's people are not only passers-by, but "strangers" here, who have in view a country beyond. Their back is toward Egypt, their face toward Canaan, and they are on the move from the one to the other.

"We nightly pitch our moving tent
A day's march nearer home."

III. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY WITH BANNERS. Not a mob, but a marshaled host.

Observe the order prescribed in this chapter for the encampment and for the march. This idea of the Church has often been abused to the support of ecclesiastical systems for which there is no warrant in the New Testament. The sort of organized unity proper to the Hebrew Church cannot be transferred to the Church Catholic. Still the idea is true and valuable. God is a God of order, and not of confusion. We believe in the communion of saints. Christians are not to fight every one for his own hand, or march every one by himself. It is a good and pleasant thing for brethren to come together and keep together.

IV. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY OF WHICH GOD KEEPS A PERFECT ROLL. A good general would like to know, and Christ does know, every one of his men by name, and they are written in his book. When a soul is born again—born in Zion—the Lord registers the fact (Psalms 87:6); and lye continually remembers the person's name. "I am poor and needy, yet the Lord thinketh upon me."

V. THE CHURCH IS AN ARMY WHICH HAS THE LORD FOR ITS EVER-PRESENT LEADER AND COMMANDER. The ark of the covenant led the van on the march, and rested in the midst of the congregation when it encamped. "Go ye into all the world;… and, lo, I am with you alway."—B.


Numbers 2:1, Numbers 2:2


I. AS THE SOURCE OF ORDER. Israel formed an armed encampment, not a mob. The place of each tribe was assigned by God, and thus was not a matter of caprice or partiality on the part of Moses (Numbers 2:34). They were grouped according to their tribes and families. A post in the rearguard was as honourable as one in the van, because a matter of Divine appointment. Yet all "afar off," as a sign of the reverence due to their God. Apply this truth to the tribes, i.e; the visible Churches and denominations of the Israel of God. This may be illustrated from apostolic days, or from modern Church history. Each has a position, historical, geographical, social, assigned by the providence of God. Each tribe had some peculiarities (cf. Genesis 49:1-33), as each section of the Church has. And as there were, no doubt, reasons for the position allotted to every family, so the God of "order" and "peace" (1 Corinthians 14:1-40) designed that every Church should fill its appointed place ("by its own standard," etc.), and, as part of the militant host, stand in orderly relations to himself and to the brotherhood. The same truth extends to individuals, the bounds of their habitation and the sphere of their service having been fixed by God.

II. AS A CENTER OF ATTRACTION. The doors of the tents probably faced the tabernacle. It was a center of attraction—

1. For guidance, through the high priest, and Moses, and the symbolic cloud (cf. Psalms 25:4, Psalms 25:5, Psalms 25:9, Psalms 25:15).

2. For pardon, through sacrifice. And God himself is the only hope of a sinful Church (Jeremiah 14:7-9; 2 Corinthians 5:18, 2 Corinthians 5:19).

3. For purity, through the restraining and elevating influence of a holy God ever present in their midst (cf. Deuteronomy 23:14 with 2 Corinthians 6:16-1).

III. AS A PLEDGE OF SAFETY, both when encamped (Numbers 2:2) or on the march (Numbers 2:17). So "God is in the midst" "of the tabernacles of the Most High," the homes of his people (cf. Deuteronomy 4:7, and Romans 8:31). He is in our midst as "a lion" to terrify our foes (Hosea 11:10; see Acts 5:17 Acts 5:42), as a fire to enlighten and to protect (Isaiah 4:5), as "a man of war" to fight for us (Isaiah 49:25, Isaiah 49:26; Numbers 23:21). This presence of God in our midst should inspire

(1) confidence (Deuteronomy 33:29),

(2) reverence (Psalms 89:7),

(3) joy (Psalms 118:15), and should prepare us for the fulfillment of the promise in Revelation 21:3-7.—P.


Numbers 2:1-34


As the first chapter discovers the size of God's army, so the second discovers the discipline of it. Number is nothing without order and discipline. A handful of cavalry can scatter a mob. Discipline also prevents rivalries. If those about our Lord, in spite of all his teaching, asked, "Who shall be greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" then we may be sure there were many ambitious souls asking in the wilderness, "Who shall be greatest in Israel?" The discipline set before us in this chapter was particularly related to the tabernacle. In this connection the discipline may be regarded as intended to secure three things.

I. REVERENCE FOR THE SANCTUARY. They were to pitch the camp far off about the tabernacle. There was plenty of a superstitious and idolatrous spirit among the Israelites, but the reverence was wanting that comes from intelligent appreciation. But for a special injunction to the contrary, they would very likely have crowded round the tabernacle, as feeling nothing peculiar about the ark. This lesson of reverence had to be sharply taught again and again, e.g; to the Philistines and the men of Bethshemesh (1 Samuel 5:1-12 and 1 Samuel 6:1-21), and to Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:1-23). The fear of God is not only the beginning of wisdom, but also of security and spiritual conquests. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. The Israelites carried about with them something as awful as the mount that burned with fire. So in the Church of Christ there should be a deep habitual reverence for the Almighty. The death of Ananias and Sapphira is a lesson for all ages as to the danger of forgetting that God is strict to mark iniquity. Confidence is necessary, but in our boldest approaches there must be the deepest humility. If we waged our spiritual warfare with real reverence for the great Trinity above, there would be more success.

II. DEFENSE OF THE SANCTUARY. It was in the midst, alike in resting and in marching. Travelers in savage countries circle themselves with fire at night, to keep off the wild beasts. So the circling tribes were to be a defense to the tabernacle. The company of Judah marched in front, and Dan brought up the rear. Judah went from honour to honour among the tribes, until the honour culminated in the inn at Bethlehem. Reuben, though the eldest, was not put first. "Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel." He could do something, leaning on Judah; not last, yet not competent to be first. But exactly all the reasons why the tribes were arranged thus, and not otherwise, we cannot tell. Jehovah had the sovereign disposal of the matter; not therefore arbitrary, or without cause. A commander does not give reasons for his strategy, though some of them may be afterwards discoverable. God has given his people to defend the sanctuary still, to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints; against the paganism of the old world, and all sorts of corruption in Christendom itself; against the pride of science transgressing its borders. We have to fight for an open Bible, free to every one caring to read it; a full Bible, its truths not minimized or attenuated to suit the fancies of men; a pure Bible, interpreted in its own light, and not confused with the distortions of later traditions. The Scriptures are our tabernacle, and we must defend them as something solemnly put in our charge.

III. PROTECTION FROM THE SANCTUARY. That which we defend protects us. Peter, before the Council, asserted and acted his right to preach the gospel. "We must obey God rather than men." Defending what was committed to his charge, he also was defended when God delivered him from Herod's prison. The unfaithful are the insecure. When we are searching the Bible to defend it against the attacks of its enemies, we are multiplying comforts and defenses for our own souls. How many looking for arguments have also found balm and security! The Lord would have Israel to understand that it was not because they were 600,000, but because he was their Leader, they were strong. Let our protection come from God. Protections of human device are like the experiments in modern naval construction. A defense may be announced perfect, but some new weapon will make it worthless. The shield of faith alone will quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one, Compare 1 Corinthians 14:1-40 with this chapter, as showing the need both for order and discipline.—Y.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 2". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-2.html. 1897.
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