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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 4

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



1 . The relatively small number of Levites (twenty-two thousand) must not be understood as a fact so extraordinary as to invalidate the account, as Bishop Colenso hints. It was, no doubt, a part of the prophetic curse of Jacob. Genesis 49:6-7; also Numbers 1:49, note. It is also probable that the numbers of the other tribes included many servants and dependents of “the mixed multitude” who accompanied Israel out of Egypt. But in the census of the Levites only pure Hebrews were numbered.

2 . In Numbers 4:3; Numbers 4:23; Numbers 4:30; Numbers 4:39; Numbers 4:43; Numbers 4:47, the minimum age of Levitical service is thirty years, but in Numbers 8:24-25, it is twenty-five years. The Seventy cut this knot by uniformly reading twenty-five for thirty throughout this chapter; but this is an arbitrary and unauthorized attempt at harmony. The Talmud, followed by some Christian writers, affirms that at twenty-five the Levites attended at the tabernacle for instruction during a term of five years. But in Numbers 8:24 they are called to “go in to wait upon the service of the tabernacle,” or, literally, “to enter into the (Levitical) army.” This is evidently more than mere pupilage. By reference to the two conflicting passages it will be found that in Numbers 4:30-31 the word burden is employed as descriptive of the duties of Levites who are thirty years old, while this term is omitted in Numbers 8:24, from which we infer that at the age of twenty-five they were permitted to perform the lighter work of guarding the tabernacle, while they were not allowed to assist in its transportation. The explanation which supposes that the age of thirty was for the period of their journeyings, and that the age of twenty-five was in anticipation of their abode in the Land of Promise, has no scriptural foundation. Its most plausible argument is, that in Palestine, when scattered in the Levitical cities, a larger number would be required than in the wilderness, where the whole body were present. Hence David reduced the age to twenty years. 1 Chronicles 23:24; 1 Chronicles 23:27.

3 . The tabernacle is, in the New Testament, figuratively employed to represent the human body; the holy things first removed, the soul; the curtains taken down, the consumed flesh; the disjointed boards, the scattered bones; the tabernacle removed and set up in another place, the resurrection. See John 1:14, εσκηνωσε , tabernacled; 2 Corinthians 5:1-4; 2 Peter 1:14. It is also used by John in the Revelation to represent the future dwelling of God among men. Numbers 7:15, σκηνωσει , shall tabernacle. Also Numbers 13:6; Numbers 21:3. Compare Ezekiel 37:27-28.

Verses 1-3


The Lord in this chapter defines the term of acceptable service to be rendered by the Levites. This was necessary to secure the highest efficiency in service, and as a safeguard against failure through the immaturity of youth and the imbecility of old age.

Verse 3

3. From thirty years old The minimum limit is fixed at ten years above the military age. This is not surprising when we consider that the sacred service required not only physical strength, but especially intellectual maturity and sound judgment. These are rarely found at twenty, but at thirty the character becomes fixed, and the mind assumes the oaken toughness of manhood. John the Baptist began to preach when thirty. Jesus Christ, though not under the limitations of the Levite, did not enter upon his public mission till thirty years of age. Although the world was in sad need of the Gospel when he was twenty, he waited until he could present to the wondering world a perfect manhood enshrining the Supreme Godhead. Hence the celebrated Hebraist and theologian, Prof. Moses Stuart, has very ably argued, that as a general rule none should be ordained to the responsible office of the ministry of the Gospel till thirty years of age. For a discussion of the discrepancy between the thirty years required here and the twenty-five years in Numbers 8:24-25, see general remarks at the close of this chapter.

Until fifty years This is a few years above the usual maximum military age. In ancient Rome this was at forty-six; in the United States a man at forty-five is exempt. The reason for the continuance of the Levite beyond the military age-limit of many nations is, that the intellect and judgment at that age have suffered no deterioration.

All that enter into the host Hebrew, Every one that enters the army. The service of God is a spiritual warfare; the body of believers constitutes the militant Church. Hence the frequency of martial metaphors in St. Paul’s epistles.

Verse 4

4. In the tabernacle Into the holy of holies, where God met the high priest, no other person was permitted to go. But it was the office of the Kohathites to transport and have the charge of the sacred furniture contained therein when wrapped up by Aaron and his sons.

The most holy things Hebrew, holiness of holiness, a form of Hebrew superlative. There is no need of the English preposition about. “The most holy things” are the grammatical appositive of tabernacle; the container is put for the contained, such as the ark of the covenant, the golden altar, the table of show-bread, and the candlestick. These were not to be touched, nor even seen, till wrapped up by the priests in the manner prescribed in the following verses. Eleazar, the elder of Aaron’s living sons, was charged with the preparation of these burdens of the Kohathites. See Numbers 4:16.

Verses 4-20


These have the post of honour, perhaps because Moses and Aaron pertained to this family. Seniority would have assigned this most responsible charge to the Gershonites.

Verse 5

5. The covering vail That which separated the holy from the most holy place. It was this vail that was rent at the crucifixion of Christ. In Hebrews 9:3, it is called the second vail. The temple vail was very heavy, and made of blue, purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen.

Verse 6

6. The covering This must be distinguished from the outside covering of the whole ohel, or tabernacle. Hence it should be translated “a covering,” made specially to enwrap the ark for carrying.

Badgers’ skins Hebrew, tachash skins; LXX., hyacinth (coloured) skin. Gesenius sustains the English translation badger, which Dr. Robinson says “is without sufficient reason,” as this animal is rare in the wilderness. He inclines to call it the halicore, a kind of fish. Keil, and De Wette, and Knobel call it the sea-cow. Furst styles it the shark, or the dogfish.

The Speaker’s Commentary inclines to the seal, the skin of which was used for a tent by Augustus, and is said to be proof against lightning. See Exodus 25:5, note.

Cloth wholly of blue Or, rather, purple blue. The Hebrew, תכלת , is translated by the Seventy υακινθινιν , hyacinth blue, and in the seventh verse, ολοπορφυρον , wholly purple. We have here proof that Jehovah makes provision for the gratification of the esthetical nature of his people, for this cloth is ornamental. The leathern cover beneath it is for protection. We are not sure of what the colour is the emblem. The ark bore within it the two tables of the law, and its lid was the propitiatory or mercy-seat. Inasmuch as Christ is our propitiation, (Romans 3:25,) and has hid the law in his heart, (Psalms 40:8,) the ark symbolizes him. Hence it was proper to signalize it with a bright covering, to invest it with all honour in the eyes of man.

Put in the staves These were the golden rods with which it was carried. They were not to be taken out. Exodus 25:15. This prohibition may not have applied when draping the ark for removal. It was disregarded on another occasion. 1 Kings 8:8. All the sacred vessels were to be so wrapped up as not to be touched by the bearers. The Hebrew can be translated adjust or dispose the staves.

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Verses 7-9

7, 9. The table of show-bread This is minutely described in Exodus 25:23-30. The literal Hebrew here is show table, or, more exactly, table of faces or face, referring to the presence of Jehovah, not of the people, for they were not permitted to see it. It sets forth in a sensible manner the great truth that the unseen Jesus is the bread of life for the believing soul. It, with all its furniture, and the continual bread, was to be prepared for removal. The bread was called “continual” or perpetual, because loaves were always to be on the table, the new always taking the place of the old. The table was to be spread with a cloth of blue, or purple blue, and then, after all the furniture and show-bread were put upon it, was to be covered with a scarlet cloth. Could we authoritatively interpret the significance of this colour, as some assume to do, we should not hesitate to enlighten the reader. In this case the coloured cloth is not for ornament, since it is covered with the tachash skin. The same may be said of the golden candlestick, and all the utensils appertaining to it. This was the symbol of that illumination which is afforded by the Holy Spirit, dispelling doubts, and giving to the believer a sense of the reality of spiritual truth. Hence the Holy Ghost is called by Jesus the Spirit of Truth, or the Spirit of Reality, because he makes real to our spiritual intuition the truth which is dark to our reason.

Snuffdishes The same word is elsewhere rendered censer.

Leviticus 10:1; Numbers 16:6. The one was used for trimming the lamps, and the other for carrying live coals for the purpose of burning incense.

Verse 10

10. Put… upon a bar Poles framed together with cross-bars, for bearing on the shoulders of two men, like a sedan-chair.

Verse 11

11. The golden altar This (described in Exodus 30:1-5) was also to be wrapped in a twofold cover of blue cloth and skins after it was cleansed of its ashes. The staves or rods, which would be in the way of the ministering priests, were not in the rings when the altar was in use. They are now to be put in. Covered first with purple, and then with its outside wrapping of skins, it was to be carried by the waiting Levites, while the various implements of the altar, wrapped in a similar manner, were to be carried on bars resting on the shoulders of the Levites. The removal of the ashes indicates that some sacrifices were made in the wilderness, a fact which some writers deny. There was, doubtless, much neglect of this duty. Amos 5:25.

Verse 15

15. Covering the sanctuary Since none but Aaron could enter into the holy of holies under the penalty of death, we are to understand, by the sons of Aaron assisting in preparing the sanctuary and its furniture, that the prohibition was in force only when the cloud rested upon the tabernacle. But when this was removed the sons of Aaron might enter the most holy place to assist in these preparations for removal. Now that Christ has rent the veil by his death for us, we may all draw near with boldness, not to the ark of the covenant, divested of the glorious presence of the Shekinah, but to the throne of grace, filled with the presence of the merciful Father, propitiated by the great High Priest, who ever liveth to make intercession for us.

Verse 16

16. The office of Eleazar It is the statement of Jewish commentators that Eleazar bore upon his person four burdens: “The oil of the light in his right hand, and the anointing oil in his left; the incense in his bosom, and the meat offering on his shoulder.” But it is not credible that one man should be so heavily laden, for the anointing oil alone, according to the lowest computation, weighed at least fifty pounds. Exodus 30:23-24. It is reasonable to suppose that he was specially charged with the care of these, but that he was assisted by the Levites.

Sweet incense The emblem of acceptable prayer. It was compounded of several spices and aromatic gums, (see Exodus 30:34-36,) indicating the different exercises in prayer, as adoration, confession, etc. In this minute description of the materials for the daily service with which Eleazar was charged there is no mention of the sacred fire, which had to be kept always burning. An item so important must have been provided for, and some persons must have transported and kept alive the sacred coals in a censer.

Verse 18

18. Cut ye not off… the Kohathites Hebrews, Cause ye not to cut off, etc. This admonition signifies that the priests charged with the duty of enveloping the sacred furniture should not be the occasion of the death of any Levite through their inattention to the commandment to cover the holy things from the sight or touch of the bearers. If it is objected that it is unreasonable to suppose that the just God would cut off one through another’s carelessness in handling sacred things, we would call attention to that very constitution and course of nature in which we daily move. We are every day exposed to sudden death through the absent-mindedness of the apothecary, the thoughtlessness of the switch-tender, the sleepiness of the engineer, or the unskilfulness of the pilot. God does not miraculously interpose to prevent the evil results of inadvertence in dealing with physical forces. We should expect the same to be true when we enter the realm of spiritual powers. The death-stroke that flashed from the Shekinah upon some curious Levite who approached unwarned the uncovered ark of the covenant might have been as natural as the death-shock from an accidental contact with an unguarded electrical battery. For aught that we know it would require a miracle to prevent a fatal result of carelessness in the first case as much as in the second. What a lesson is here taught to all Christians, especially to all ministers of the Gospel, not to withhold from the wicked the proclamation of the terrors of the Lord God, who is a consuming fire. “Those who do not what they can to keep others from sin, do what they can to cut them off.” This remark of the sententious Henry is based on the word of God. Proverbs 24:11-12; Ezekiel 33:6.

Verse 20

20. They shall not… see… lest they die There is here a very expressive Hebrew word, כבלע , as a gulp, a swallowing. “They shall not see for a single instant the holy things.” Dr. A. Clarke’s reference of this word to the enveloping of the holy things is hardly admissible. The Authorized Version makes the same mistake by rendering it, when they are covered. While we shrink from announcing all the reasons for hanging so many terrors about the abode of Jehovah on the earth, we may say that nothing could more deeply impress upon all the Hebrew people the majesty, power, and holiness of their God in contrast with the divinities of all the surrounding nations. It is in mercy that God withholds from our eager eyes those revelations of his glory which our spiritual stupidity and littleness of faith so often crave. It was after the awful manifestation of Jehovah on the summit of Horeb that the people said to Moses, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak, lest we die.” Exodus 20:19.

Verses 21-33


The special service assigned to this great family of Levites was the transportation of the cloth and skin coverings of the tabernacle, with its numerous hangings, cords, and curtains. There are no minute directions respecting the packing of these, because they were deemed less sacred than the furniture. They were taken down and folded up by the Levites, (Numbers 1:51,) under the superintendence of Ithamar, the son of Aaron. The Gershonites were allowed two covered wagons, drawn by four oxen. Numbers 7:3; Numbers 7:7.


The framework of the movable temple still remains to be transported. The family of Merari are charged with the boards, posts, pins, bars, and cordage pertaining to the support of the structure. They were allowed the assistance of four covered wagons drawn by eight oxen. Numbers 7:3; Numbers 7:8. On the march, this family, as well as the Gershonites, were under the command of Ithamar the priest. His column was to precede the Kohathites with the sacred furniture, in order to pitch the tabernacle and have it in readiness for them. Numbers 10:17; Numbers 10:21.

Verse 32

32. By name… the instruments As there was a great difference in the weight of these various parts, the burdens might be very unequally distributed if each was left free to choose his own. Hence this precaution prevented strife and injustice. The phrase “by name” implies that an inventory was kept, not only on account of the number and variety, but of the comparative commonness and smallness of those things which might have been easily lost through carelessness. There is nothing trivial in the service of God.

Verses 34-49


The results of the enumeration of Levites between thirty and fifty years are here tabulated, together with the number of incompetents and the total:

COMPETENT. INCOMPETENT. TOTAL. Kohathites 2,750 5,850 8,600 Gershonites 2,630 4,870 7,500 Merarites 3,200 3,000 6,200 Total 8,580 13,720 22,300

Percent. Competent Percent. Incompetent. Kohathites 32 68 Gershonites 35 65 Merarites 52 48 The total number of competent men tallies well with the whole number of Levites. The percentage of competent Merarites is remarkable. “What an astonishing number of men, all purely ecclesiastics; all performing some service by which God is glorified, and the congregation at large benefitted!” A. Clarke. We should not regard the thirteen thousand seven hundred and twenty incompetents as entirely useless. The care of the cattle and flocks, and the transportation of the families and their tents, would afford sufficient scope for the healthful activity of both the young and the old. Superannuates in the Christian ministry often glorify their Master more by suffering his will than by doing it.

By inspecting the above table the wisdom and goodness of Jehovah are seen in adjusting the heaviest burden to the strongest shoulders. Merari, numerically the least family, has the largest number of strong men, and the severest labour.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-4.html. 1874-1909.
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