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Thursday, May 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 2 / Ordinary 7
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 4

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

Verses 1-49



Numbers 4:2

Take the sum of the sons of Kohath. The Levites having been separated from the other tribes, the Kohathites are now to be separated from amongst the other Levites for the most honourable and sacred duties. To them the preference was given presumably because the priests were Kohathites.

Numbers 4:3

From thirty years old and upward. The age at which they became liable for service was shortly after reduced to twenty-five (Numbers 8:24), and at a later period to twenty (1 Chronicles 23:27). In the wilderness a larger number of the men might be required to attend to their own camps, and their own families; but the explanation may probably be found in the unusually large proportion who were at this time between the ages of thirty and fifty. The Septuagint has altered thirty into twenty-five to make it agree with Numbers 8:24. Thirty years became among the Jews the perfect age at which a man attained to full maturity, and entered upon all his fights and duties (cf. Luke 3:23). Into the host. Not the military ranks, but the militia sacra of the Lord. To do the work. Literally, "to war the warfare."

Numbers 4:4

About the most holy things. Rather, "the most holy things:" they were the service of the Kohathites. So the Septuagint.

Numbers 4:5

The covering veil. The curtain which hung before the holy of holies, afterwards known as "the veil of the temple" (Luke 23:45).

Numbers 4:6

The covering of badgers' skins. Probably of sea-cow skins (tachash), but see Exodus 25:5. The Targum of Palestine, and the Septuagint, both render it "a covering of hyacinthine skin." The later Jews would have no knowledge of the marine animals common on the shores of the Red Sea. A cloth wholly of blue. This was the distinctive outer, and therefore Visible, covering of the most sacred thing, the ark.

Numbers 4:7

The dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and covers to cover withal. Rather, "the plates, the bowls, the wine pitchers, and the chalices for pouring out," i.e; the drink offerings. The two first seem to have been used in the meat offering, the two last in the drink offering.

Numbers 4:8

Shall put in the staves thereof. This formula is repeated alike with reference to the ark, the table, and the two altars. It would therefore be natural to suppose that the staves had all been taken out while the various coverings were put on. On the other hand, it is expressly directed in Exodus 25:15 that the staves of the ark shall "not be taken from it." Two explanations are possible. Either the former command does not contemplate the necessity of wrapping up the ark, and only applies to all times when it was at rest, or in movement; or else the latter direction only means, in the ease of the ark, that the staves should be adjusted for the purpose of bearing.

Numbers 4:9

Snuff-dishes. Some render this word "extinguishers," but it could hardly bear that meaning, since it also signifies censers in Numbers 16:6, and fire-pans in Exodus 27:3. They were evidently shallow metal pans available for many different purposes.

Numbers 4:10

Upon a bar—i.e; a bearing-frame. Επ ἀναφορέων, Septuagint; "upon a rest," Targum of Palestine.

Numbers 4:12

All the instruments of ministry. These do not seem to be, at any rate exclusively, the vessels pertaining to the golden altar. They are not packed up with it, but separately, in a blue cloth and a skin covering of their own. Probably they include all the vessels and utensils used inside the tabernacle which have not been previously mentioned.

Numbers 4:13

Take away the ashes. This is omitted by the Septuagint. The Hebrew word for "ashes is of somewhat doubtful meaning, being only used here and in Exodus 27:3; Psalms 20:3. Being connected with the word "fat," it may perhaps mean the grease or dripping from the burnt offerings. The Targum of Palestine renders it "cinders." As the altar was hollow, and was filled with earth or stones when used, there would be no need to cleanse it from ashes; if this be the meaning of the word, the command would rather have been to collect the living embers before the altar was removed, in order to keep alive the sacred fire. That this fire was never allowed to go out may be looked upon as certain.

Numbers 4:15

These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath. One thing which the Kohathites almost certainly had to carry is omitted here, possibly because it was carried without any cover at all, and was not regarded as of equal sanctity with the rest. Anyhow, the omission is very remarkable, and may have been accidental. It is supplied by the Septuagint and the Samaritan text in the following addition to Numbers 4:14 : "And they shall take a purple cloth, and cover the laver and its foot, and they shall put it into a hyacinthine cover of skin, and put it on bars." The burdens of the Kohathites were six, not counting the laver and its foot:

(1) the ark;

(2) the table of shewbread;

(3) the candelabrum;

(4) the golden altar;

(5) "instruments of ministry;"

(6) the frame of the brazen altar.

Numbers 4:16

To the office of Eleazar,… oversight. Septuagint, ἐπίσκοπος Ελεάζαρ …: ἡ ἑπισκοπὴ. On him was laid the oversight of and the responsibility for all the material appliances of Divine worship, and in especial it devolved upon him to see to the oil, the incense, and the chrism, and the materials for the daily meat offering. No doubt it is intended, although not precisely expressed, that the Kohathites were specially under his orders.

Numbers 4:18

Cut ye not off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites. The word tribe (shebet) is used in an unusual way here, not in the sense of tribus, but of stirps. Perhaps as Levi was himself a microcosm of all Israel, so his families ranked as tribes; and no doubt they remained more distinct than the families of any other tribe. The meaning of the command is plainly this, "Take care that the Kohathites are not cut off through any negligence or want of consideration on your part; and the form of the command, "cut ye not off," conveyed most emphatically the warning, that if any mischief befell the Kohathites which the priests could have prevented, they would be responsible for it in the sight of God. No doubt, as a fact, the Kohathites would take their cue from the conduct of the priests: if they were irreverent and careless, the Levites would be the same, and would sooner or later presume, and, presuming, would die.

Numbers 4:19

Thus do unto them, i.e; exactly as commanded in Numbers 4:5-15.

Numbers 4:20

They shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered. This translation is disputed. The word rendered "are covered" is the Piel infinitive from bala, to swallow, and so to destroy. It may signify the extreme rapidity with which the most holy things were hidden from sight and removed from touch, so as to become, as it were, non-existent for the time. So the Syriac, Arabic, Samaritan, and the Targums of Onkelos and Palestine. On the other hand, it may be a proverbial expression, "in a swallow, at a gulp," i.e; "for an instant,'' as in Job 7:19. And so the Septuagint, ἐξάπινα, and most modern scholars. Whichever way, however, we take it, the phrase, "they shall not go in to see," seems to limit the prohibition under pain of death to the deliberate act of entering the tabernacle out of curiosity during the process of packing up the holy things. The case of the men of Bethshemesh, therefore (1 Samuel 6:19), does not fall within the letter of this law, although it does within its spirit. The command, thus limited, is no doubt an addition to the previous command not to touch, but it is altogether in keeping with it. If it was the will of God to hedge about these sacred symbols of his presence and his worship with an awful sanctity, it is obvious that he was as much bound to defend them against the irreverent prying of the eye as against the irreverent touch of the hand; and the prying here prohibited would have been distinctly willful and inexcusable.

Numbers 4:25

They shall bear the curtains, etc. For these four coverings, of tapestry, of goats' hair, of rams' skins, and of sea-cow skin respectively, see Exodus 26:1-37. In addition to these, the Gershonites carried all the hangings belonging to the tabernacle and to the outer court, with the single exception of the "veil" which was wrapped round the ark.

Numbers 4:26

And their cords, and all the instruments of their service. Taking this verse in connection with Numbers 4:37, we must understand the word "their" as applying to the things mentioned in the previous verse. The Merarites carried the cords, &c. of the hangings of the court.

Numbers 4:28

Under the hand of Ithamar, as also were the Merarites. He had been already engaged in overseeing the construction of the tabernacle (Exodus 38:21).

Numbers 4:31

This is the charge of their burden, viz; all the solid parts of the fabric of the tabernacle and its court; by far the heaviest burden, and so allotted to the largest number.

Numbers 4:32

By name ye shall reckon the instruments of the charge of their burden. This injunction only occurs here. The Septuagint has "number them by name, and all the articles borne by them." Perhaps the solid parts of the fabric were numbered for convenience of setting up, and, therefore, were assigned each to its own bearer.

Numbers 4:48

Those that were numbered of them were eight thousand and five hundred and fourscore. The census of each family is described in the same form of words with much particularity. No doubt it was carried out with extreme solicitude, as made for a purpose especially sacred and important. The results are remarkable in more ways than one. The following table presents the numbers in each family above one month, and between the ages of thirty and fifty.





















The first conclusion which naturally arises from these figures is, that after all the numbering must have been made by tens, and not by individuals. As it was impossible that 3000 persons could be employed in carrying the various portions of the tabernacle, it may be that each group of ten undertook a unit of responsibility. The second consideration is, that the average of men between thirty and fifty in all Levi is higher than modern statistics show (it is said to be twenty-five per cent. now in the whole population), although not very materially. The third is, that this average is very unequally distributed, rising to a most remarkable proportion in the case of Merari. It is quite clear that something must have disturbed the relative numbers as between the Merarites and the other families. It has been suggested that the small number of male Levites generally, and the small number of male Kohathites, between thirty and fifty especially, may have been caused by heavy losses incurred in carrying out the Divine sentence upon the worshippers of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-35). But—

1. The slow increase of Levi continued to be very observable down to the time of David; while the other tribes grew from 600,000 to 1,300,000, he only increased to 38,000 (1 Chronicles 23:3).

2. The average of males over thirty is already higher among the Kohathites than might have been expected; it is the largeness of the number, not the smallness, which needs to be explained.

3. It is Merari, and not Kohath, that is markedly distinguished from the other two: there is little difference between Kohath and Gershon. It is evident that something must have happened to the tribe of Levi, and in especial to the family of Merari, to reduce very greatly the number of births within the last thirty years. We do not know what the causes were, or why they should have pressed much more heavily on one tribe, or one family, than on another; but it is easy to see that many such causes may have acted, and acted unequally, under the cruel tyranny of Pharaoh. The children may have been systematically slaughtered, or marriages may have largely ceased, while Moses was in the land of Midian. If this were generally the case, it would much diminish the estimated total of the nation, and still more the estimated difficulties of the march.

Numbers 4:49

Thus were they numbered of him. Literally, "and his mustering." It may have the meaning given to it in the A.V., or it may be translated "mustered things," i.e; things assigned to him in the mustering, and read with the previous words, "Every one to his service, and to his burden, and his mustered things."


Numbers 4:1-49


In this chapter we have, spiritually, certain duties of the Church on the way to heaven in respect of faith and worship, and the spirit in which matters of religion ought to be conducted. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT THE DIVINE RULE IN THE CARE OF THE SANCTUARY WAS ONE OF DISTRIBUTION. Each family within the tribe, each group within the family, perhaps each individual in the group, had his own allotted "burden." Kohath did not interfere with Merari, nor did Merari come into collision with Gershon. Even so, in all religious and ecclesiastical labours, distribution is the rule of the gospel, the Holy Spirit dividing to each severally as he will (1 Corinthians 12:1-31, passim; Ephesians 4:11-13). And note that this distribution was not made according to any superiority that we know of, but rather the reverse. Levi himself was by far the smallest of the twelve tribes, and Merari was by far the largest (for the purpose in hand) of the three families. Even so under the gospel no rules of human pre-eminence restrict the Divine distribution of gifts and offices; rather, the first shall be last, and the last first.

II. THAT THE WHOLE FABRIC OF THE TABERNACLE HAD TO BE CONTINUALLY TAKEN TO PIECES AND RECONSTRUCTED, as the host moved on in its appointed path. Even so, in the onward progress of the Church of Christ, the outward form and frame of religion has to be constantly built up afresh with ceaseless labour. For each succeeding century, for each new generation that comes up, for each new nation added to the Church, the fabric of its faith and worship has to be built up from the beginning. If not, religion, like the tabernacle, would be left far behind, the empty monument of a forsaken faith.

III. THAT, ON THE OTHER HAND, THE FURNITURE OF THE TABERNACLE AND ITS CONSTITUENT PARTS, THOUGH PERPETUALLY BEING RECONSTRUCTED, YET REMAINED IDENTICALLY THE SAME. Nothing lost, nothing added. Even so the elements of our faith and worship must remain unchangeably the same from age to age; nothing really old cast away, nothing really new introduced. "The faith once (for all) delivered to the saints." Worship primitive and apostolic. However fresh the putting together, the substance eternally the same.

IV. THAT WHILE THE WHOLE FABRIC WAS TO BE CARRIED WITH GREAT CARE AND REVERENCE, YET THE MOST SOLICITOUS CARE AND THE MOST PROFOUND REVERENCE WERE RESERVED FOR THOSE HOLY THINGS WHICH THE FABRIC ENSHRINED. Even so all that is any part of our religion, claiming any Divine authority, is to be handed down and carried on with care and with respect; but it is the few central facts and truths of revelation upon which the loving veneration and extreme solicitude of Christian teachers and people must be concentrated.

V. THAT AMONGST THESE THE ARK WAS FIRST AND FOREMOST, having three cover. tugs, and being distinguished outwardly also by its blue cloth. Even so it is the incarnation of God in Christ—the doctrine of Emmanuel, God with us—which is before all other things precious and holy, to be guarded with the most reverent and jealous care, to be distinguished openly with the most evident honour. And note

(1) that as the mercy-seat, resting on the ark, and forming its lid, was carried whithersoever the ark went, and shared in all its honour, so the doctrine of propitiation and of God reconciled to men, resting as it does essentially upon the doctrine of Emmanuel—God with us—is carried ever with it, and honoured with it. And note

(2) that as blue is the colour of heaven, so the blue outer covering of the ark (alone) may signify that the greatest effort of the Church's teachers should be so to present the doctrine of God in Christ before men that it may appear clad in heavenly love and beauty.

VI. THAT THE SHEW-BREAD WAS NOT ALLOWED TO FAIL FROM ITS TABLE EVEN DURING THE JOURNEY, but was carefully placed upon it and so carried, and thus answered to its name of "continual bread." Even so it is certain that the "living Bread which came down from heaven" must be with the Church as her "continual Broad" in all her marches. But it is more commonly considered that the shewbread in its twelve loaves represents the whole people of God, in all its sections, as always present to the eye of God. and always remembered before him for good; in which case this would emphasize the truth that we must without any intermission be had in merciful remembrance before God, lest we die. And note

(1) that as the shew-bread on the table was covered with a cloth of scarlet, which is the colour of atoning blood, this may signify that it is as covered by and, so to speak, seen through the precious blood of Christ that the Church in all her travail is remembered before God for good. And note

(2) that as the ark and the table were more honoured in their coverings than the rest, though the ark most of all, this may intimate that the two doctrines of chiefest honour in the faith are those of Christ and of his Church, i.e; of God in Christ, and Christ in us; God present with us through Christ, and we present before God through Christ (John 17:20-23, John 17:26).

VII. THAT THE SONS OF KOHATH WERE TO CARRY THOSE HOLY THINGS, BUT NEITHER TO TOUCH THEM NOR TO GO IN TO SEE THEM FOR AN INSTANT, LEST THEY SHOULD DIE. Even so the holy mysteries of the gospel are ever to be borne onwards, but neither to be handled with irreverent carelessness nor pried into with irreverent curiosity, else they become the savour of death rather than of life. It is indeed true that in Christ "the veil is taken away," and that now the gospel is openly declared to all nations; but it is also true, as to its central doctrines, that willful irreverence and idle curiosity are visited with severer punishments, because purely spiritual, now than then. It is not possible that any one be saved by faith if he handle the faith with rude familiarity, as having nothing sacred for him, or with cold curiosity, as a matter of mere intellectual interest (cf. Matthew 21:44; Luke 2:34; 2 Corinthians 2:16. Cf. also 1 Corinthians 11:29, 1 Corinthians 11:30).

VIII. THAT THE PRIESTS WERE CHARGED NOT TO "CUT OFF" THE KOHATHITES, i.e; NOT TO CAUSE THEIR DEATH BY GIVING THEM EXAMPLE OR OPPORTUNITY OF IRREVERENCE IN THEIR NECESSARY WORK ABOUT THE SACRED THINGS WHICH WOULD BE FATAL TO THEM. Even so an enormous responsibility is laid upon all who are set over others in the Lord, especially with respect to those who are necessarily brought into outward contact with religion. Those who, being custodes of sacred treasures, set an example of irreverence to those associated with them, or give them the impression of secret unbelief in what they preach or minister (an impression how quickly caught!), will be held responsible for any souls that may perish thereby. How miserably true that, "the nearer the Church, the further from God;" that none are so hardened as those whose outward duties are concerned with the maintenance of public worship; that no families are so notoriously irreligious as those of Church dignitaries and other ministers of God! And this due not more to the subtle danger arising from familiarity with the forms of religion, than to the subtler danger arising from the irreverent and careless conduct and temper of the ministers of religion. How often do such, by their behaviour at home, or when off duty, leave an impression of unbelief or of indifference, which they do not really feel, upon their families, dependants, subordinates! How awful the responsibility of such an one! He has "cut off" souls which were most nearly in his charge from amongst the people of God. The poison-breath of his irreverence has blighted their eternal future. And this holds true, in its measure, of fathers, masters, all who lead the religion of others. And note that as Aaron and his sons could only escape responsibility for any catastrophe among the Kohathites by doing exactly as the Lord commanded in the matter (see Numbers 4:19), even so we can only escape responsibility for the loss of other souls by following exactly the Divine precepts; if we allow ourselves to deviate from them at all, others through our example will deviate from them more: we are our brothers' keepers to the uttermost reach of our example.


Numbers 4:1-4


From the giving of the law till the building of Solomon's temple, a space of about 500 years, the Lord at no time "dwelt in any house, but walked in a tent and in a tabernacle" (2 Samuel 7:6). The sanctuary was a moving tent, and one principal part of the business of the Levites, the most honourable function assigned to them, was the carriage of it from place to place. Moses, who regulated so exactly the order of all the tribes, both for the march and the encampment, did not omit to appoint to every division of the Levites its duty in relation to the tabernacle and its holy furniture—what each was to carry, and in what order they were to pitch their tents. In this chapter of detailed regulations, special interest attaches to the law laid down regarding THE LEVITES' PERIOD OF SERVICE in carrying the tabernacle. It was from thirty years old till fifty (Numbers 4:3, Numbers 4:23, Numbers 4:30). This must be taken along with Numbers 8:24, where the age for entering on service is fixed at twenty-five. The explanation of the seeming discrepancy, no doubt, is that the first five years were a kind of apprenticeship. Certain other sorts of work about the tabernacle the Levites might do between twenty-five and thirty, and these they might continue to do, so far as their strength served, long after fifty; but except between thirty and fifty they might not bear the tabernacle and its vessels. When David gave to the ark a permanent abode at Jerusalem, and the service of the Levites was readjusted accordingly, the age for entering on duty was lowered to twenty, and at that point it thereafter stood (see 1 Chronicles 23:27; Ezra 3:8). The principle underlying the law was still the same. The service of God, especially in its most sacred parts, requires and deserves the best of Our years, our strength, our affections. His soul desires the first ripe fruit. There are three errors men are apt to fall into in this matter of service; I refer more especially to official service.

1. Some enter on it too young. No hard and fast line can be drawn for all men and every service. One kind of service demands greater maturity than another, and one man ripens earlier than another. But the rule here prescribed to the Levites is a good one for the average of cases. To speak only of the Christian ministry: few men under twenty-five are ripe for it, and places of special trust would require a man of thirty. Undue baste is neither reverent nor safe. The first sermon of our blessed Lord was not preached till "he began to be about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23); a touching and most suggestive example.

2. Some delay entering fill they are too old. This is most frequently seen in unofficial service. Many men, not destitute of piety, think it incumbent on them to give their prime so entirely to "business" that they have no time for anything else. Church work, home mission work, charity services, participation in these they look forward to as the employment of their leisure, after they shall have retired from business. That, at the best, is giving to the Lord not the first-fruits, but the gleanings. It will be found that, as a rule, it is not these tardy labourers whom God honours to be most useful. He honours those rather (thank God, they are many, and increasing in number) who consecrate to him a fair proportion of their strength when they are at their prime.

3. Some do not know when if is time for them to resign. The Levites' period of active service, whether it began at thirty, or twenty-five, or twenty, always ended at fifty. Not that the law thrust them out of the sanctuary when their term expired; that would have been cruelty to men who loved the service. They might still frequent the sanctuary, and perform occasional offices (see Numbers 8:26). But after fifty they ceased to be on the regular staff. Here too the rule has to be applied to the Christian Church with discrimination. For services which are characteristically mental and spiritual, a man's prime certainly does not cease at fifty. Nevertheless, the principle at the root of the rule is of undying validity and importance. The Levites' maintenance did not cease at fifty; and any Church system which does not make such provision as enables its ministers to retire when their strength fails is unscriptural and defective. On the other part, it is the duty and will be the wisdom of the Church's servants to seek retirement when they are no longer able to minister to the Lord with fresh vigour.—B.

Numbers 4:17-20


"LEST THEY DIE: "that note of warning is often heard in the law. If any man or woman touched the flaming mount, it was death (Exodus 19:12). It was death if the high priest entered into the holiest on any day but one, or on that day if he omitted to shroud the mercy-seat in a cloud of fragrant incense (Le Numbers 16:3-13). It was death if any son of Aaron transgressed the ritual, were it only by officiating in any other than the appointed garments (Exodus 28:43). In the same strain, this law in Numbers makes it death for any common Levite to touch, or gaze upon, the holy things till the priest has packed them up in their thick wrappings (verses 19, 20; cf. Numbers 1:51; Numbers 3:10). The example first of Nadab and Abihu, and afterwards of Korah and his company, showed that these threats were spoken in earnest. We cannot marvel that, after hearing and seeing all this, the people were smitten with terror, and cried out to Moses, "We perish, we perish, we all perish. Whosoever cometh anything near unto the tabernacle of the Lord shall die. Shall we be consumed with dying?" (Numbers 17:13).

I. THIS FEATURE OF THE LAW WILL HELP YOU TO UNDERSTAND THE DEPRECIATORY TERMS IN WHICH IT IS SO OFTEN MENTIONED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, especially by the Apostle Paul. The law was "the ministration of death and of condemnation" (2 Corinthians 3:7, 2 Corinthians 3:9); it "worketh wrath" (Romans 4:15); it breathed a "spirit of bondage" and fear (Romans 8:15); it "gendered to bondage" (Galatians 4:24); it was "an intolerable yoke" (Acts 15:10). Not that the whole contents of the Pentateuch fell under this description. Much of promise was spoken in presence of the mountain of the law. But let the law be taken by itself, and let the gospel verities foreshadowed by its ritual be shut out from view, and does it not answer to the disparaging descriptions? It was full of wrath, condemnation, fear. No doubt there was an element of grace even in the covenant of Sinai. It was a benefit done to Israel when the Lord delivered to them the commandments, pitched his tabernacle among them, and suffered them to draw near under the conditions of the ritual. Nevertheless, the conditions were hard and terrible; we may well thank God for abolishing them. They are utterly abolished. The veil is rent from top to bottom; the yoke is broken; we have received the spirit of adoption, not the spirit of bondage again to fear; we have boldness to enter into the holiest.

II. NOTHING THAT HAS BEEN SAID IMPLIES THAT THE LEVITICAL LAW WAS REALLY UNWORTHY OF THE WISDOM OR THE GRACE OF GOD. For the time then present it was the best thing that could be. Certain truths of primary importance men were everywhere forgetting: among others, the holy majesty of God; that communion with God is to the soul of man the very breath of life; that man is a sinner for whom there is no remission, no access, without atonement. These lessons the law was meant and fitted to teach. These lessons it did teach, burning them into the conscience of the nation. The law was not the gospel, but it led forward to the gospel. A service beyond all price.

III. NOR HAS THE BENEFICENT OFFICE OF THE LAW CEASED WITH THE ADVENT OF THE BETTER TIME. Men are ready to abuse the grace of God, to give harbour to licentiousness on pretext of Christian liberty. If you doubt it, search well your own heart. What is the remedy? It is found sometimes in the rod of God's afflicting providence, sometimes in the searching discipline of the law. For the law, although in its letter abrogated, abides for ever in its substance. We are not bound—we are not at liberty—to slay sin offerings or burn incense. But we are bound to ruminate on the law of sacrifice and intercession. The Levitical ritual belongs in this sense to us as much as it ever belonged to the Jews. It admonishes us of the reverence due to God. A certain filial boldness he will welcome, but presumptuous trifling with his majesty and holiness he will not suffer. If we would be accepted, we must worship God with reverence and godly fear, for our God is still a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).—B.


Numbers 4:15-20


The sons of Kohath had the most honourable of the duties assigned to the Levites, in being permitted to carry the sacred vessels of the tabernacle. But they were thus exposed to temptations and perils from which their less favoured brethren were exempt. To touch or even to see the holy things was death. Similar temptations, to those intrusted with distinguished service in God's Church, may arise from—

I. CURIOSITY. Illustrate from the sin of the men of Bethshemesh (1 Samuel 6:1-21). Men brought by their duties into close contact with Divine mysteries may yield to the curiosity of unauthorized speculations to which ignorant and groveling minds are not exposed (cf. Colossians 2:18). Illustrate from speculations on the Trinity, the incarnation, or the profitless inquiries of some of the schoolmen as to angels, etc. Caution applicable to theological speculations of today (Deuteronomy 29:29).

II. THOUGHTLESSNESS. A thoughtless disregard of God's strict injunctions, by either a priest (Numbers 4:18, Numbers 4:19) or a Kohathite, might have been fatal. So now those who have perpetually to deal with Divine things are in danger of irreverence from thoughtlessness. E.g; Christian ministers, who have to be constantly praying and preaching, as part of their service for God. Christians who have a reputation for saintliness above their brethren need special reverence, lest they should handle Divine things in a familiar, unauthorized manner. Apply to some habits of modern public worship tending to sad irreverence.

III. DISTRUST. Illustrate from the sin of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6, 2 Samuel 6:7). We are thus warned against using illegitimate means in support of the cause of God which we think to be in danger. Carnal methods must not be resorted to for the defense of spiritual truths. Some of the most devoted servants of Christ have profaned the ark of God, when they thought it in danger, by touching and propping it by supports God has never sanctioned. E.g; persecutions on behalf of the truth of God. Caution to those who now rely on worldly alliances and statesmanship on behalf of God's Church. Front such perils we may be preserved by the spirit of

(1) profound humility, at the privilege of being allowed to come so near and to deal with the mysteries of God (Ephesians 3:8; Hebrews 12:28, Hebrews 12:29);

(2) reverential obedience to every item of the instructions God has given us (1 Chronicles 15:12, 1 Chronicles 15:13; Psalms 119:128);

(3) fearless trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, who has guarded his Church hitherto, is saving us, and who will protect his people and his truth by his own power to the end (2 Timothy 4:18).—P.


Numbers 4:1-49


One tribe has been set apart in lieu of the first-born of all Israel, and to this tribe is entrusted the service of the tabernacle. The nature and distribution of that service are now placed before us. Note—

I. THE REGARD FOR THE PRINCIPLE OF INHERITANCE. As the tribes had their appointed place around the tabernacle, so the three great natural divisions of the tribe of Levi had their appointed place in it. So in the service of the Church of Christ there must ever be something corresponding to this natural division in Levi. The great Head has given some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. There are always some Christians rather than others who may be taken as spiritual children of certain in the spiritual generation before them, those on whom the prophet's mantle may fall, as did that of Elijah on Elisha.

II. THE LIMITATIONS OF SERVICE. No Levite could do the work of an anointed priest. The Kohathites were to bear the things of the holy place, but they were not to see them or prepare them for removal. There was a gulf of difference between Aaron and the noblest of the Kohathites, though they belonged to the same tribe. So between Christ and even the best of his people. There is so much to link us to our Lord, so much to reveal him as walking about on the same level, that we cannot be too careful to remember the differences between our services, humble even the most honourable of them, and that glorious peculiar service where Christ is Priest and Atonement in one. The limitations of age. None under thirty, none over fifty. At twenty a man may have strength and courage for fighting (Numbers 1:3), but ten years more must pass over his head before he is judged to have the sobriety and sedateness needed for tabernacle service. Then at fifty he retires. God has consideration for failing strength. The burdens of the tabernacle must be carried, therefore God provides that the bearers shall be strong. There were constantly fresh and, we may suppose, often eager accessions at the younger limit of the service. Jesus was about thirty when he entered on his public life (Luke 3:23), and the Baptist would be about the same. Let these limitations of God be considered by all whom they concern. There are duties of manhood which youth has not the experience, nor age the strength, to perform.

III. THE SECURING OF PERSONAL SERVICE (Numbers 4:19, Numbers 4:49). Only certain persons were fit to do the work, but all who were fit had some work to do. In the Church of Christ fitness for anything, clearly seen, distinctly felt, has in it the nature of a command. We need not fear that there will ever be too many persons engaged in the service of the true tabernacle. There were between eight and nine thousand at this first appointment, but the Lord's promise runs (Jeremiah 33:22), "As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured, so I will multiply the Levites that minister unto me." We are all Levites now.

IV. THE WORK WAS ALL NECESSARY WORK. No doubt a certain honour attached to the Kohathites, but great risk went with it; and after all, the honour was more in the eyes of men than of God. All that is needful to be done for him is honourable. The least peg or cord was not to be left behind, any more than the ark itself. There should be a spirit of humble joy and gratitude in us that we are counted worthy to do anything for God. All are needed to make up the perfection of service. To the complete body the little finger is as needful as the complex and powerful brain. For the circulation of the blood the capillaries are as needful as the great arteries and veins. God calls for no superfluous work from us. He has no mere ornaments in the Church. If a thing is not of use, it is no ornament, however it be decorated.

Application:—Find your work and burden. Every one has his own burden (φορτίον) to bear. No one else then can carry your burden than you. Seek your place. Take the lowest one, then assuredly you will come in time to the right one. The lowest place in the tabernacle service is better than the highest among the ungodly (Psalms 84:10).—Y.

INTERIOR SANCTITIES OF ISRAEL (Numbers 5:1-31, Numbers 6:1-27).



Numbers 5:11-31 : JEALOUSY PURGED.



Whether these portions of the Divine legislation are connected with the surrounding narrative

(1) by an order of time, as having been given at this point, or

(2) by a harmony of subject, as completing on its inward side the perfection of the camp, or whether

(3) their insertion here was in a sense accidental, and not now to be accounted for, must remain uncertain.


(1) it must be observed that there is a decided break in the order of time at the beginning of Numbers 7:1-89; against

(2) that a large part of the Levitical enactments might have been added here with an equal propriety.

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 4". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tpc/numbers-4.html. 1897.
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