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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary
Numbers 4

 

 

Verses 1-26

In chapter 4 we have details as to the service of the Levites in connection with the sanctuary, and also details of the work of the priests, particularly when the camp was in movement. The Levites were divided into three groups under the leadership of Kohath, Gershon and Merari respectively, though the first of these groups was controlled by Aaron's son Eleazar and the second and third by his son, Ithamar.

It was exclusively the work of the priests to prepare the contents of the tabernacle for transit. No eyes but theirs were to gaze upon the ark and the other holy objects and vessels that were there. No hands but theirs were to place upon them the suitable coverings. Only when covered by the priests were the Kohathites to lift them. If these objects, which were but the shadows of the good things to come in Christ Himself and the Holy Spirit, were only exposed to priestly eyes, we may take to heart the lesson that the far holier Reality, now revealed to us, is only apprehended as we take up our priestly privileges in the power of the Spirit. Apart from this we may attempt to scrutinize, but only to our own undoing.

As regards the coverings, the ark was alone in this respect, that the veil which divided the holiest from the holy place was placed immediately upon it. When the tabernacle was stationary the veil separated the ark from all beside; when in movement it completely covered it; and its significance is fixed for us in Hebrews 10:20 "the veil, that is to say, His flesh" Veiled in flesh, the true "Ark" moved amongst men.

But over this was to be placed a covering of badgers' skins, and again over this a cloth of blue. Badger's skins would present a rough surface but be very impervious and protective to the holy things beneath, while blue, the heavenly colour, was what met the eye. As a type this is significant, for in our Lord the protective element was essential to Himself — beneath the surface, so to speak — and hence nothing marred the heavenly beauty He displayed before men.

In the cases of other vessels the blue was inside and the badgers' skins were on the surface to preserve from defilement. This was so even with the candlestick, typical of the seven-fold light of the Spirit, who is essentially holy even as Christ is, but who has never become incarnate, but now indwells redeemed men. There was a further difference since on the table of shewbread was to be spread a cloth of scarlet as well as one of blue, and on the brazen altar was to be no cloth of blue but one of purple. Scarlet is generally held to be indicative of human glory and purple of imperial dominion. The shewbread loaves spoke of God's perfect administration for the earth, yet to be realized through the twelve tribes of Israel, and there human glory will most brightly shine.

How fitting also that the altar, which spoke of the sufferings and death of the Saviour, should be covered with purple under the badger skins, for His universal dominion will be acknowledged by all to rest for its foundation upon His death, as Revelation 5:1-14 so clearly shows. The only One, who is worthy to receive the power, which is grasped at by the "beasts" of Revelation 13:1-18, is "the Lamb that was slain." To this we all add our worshipful "Amen" even today.

The Levites were to serve from the age of thirty to the age of fifty; that is, their years of maturity and physical strength were to be devoted to energetic service, for it was theirs to set up the tabernacle and take it down, as we saw at the end of Numbers 1:1-54, as well as carry it and its contents when the people journeyed. When we come to Numbers 8:1-26, we shall find further reference to this.

As we survey the whole of Numbers 4:1-49, we cannot but be struck by the way in which God ordered everything in connection with His wilderness house, leaving nothing to man's preference or choice. It reminds us at once of 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; 1 Corinthians 14:1-40, where we learn that in God's present house, which is "the Church of the living God" (1 Timothy 3:15), the Spirit of God is sovereign, acting under the lordship of Christ, and that He divides " to every man severally as He will." We are only right as we serve under the direction of the Spirit of God. It is not for us to pick and choose.

Numbers 5:1-31, which follows, instructs as to the removing of defilement from the camp which surrounded the tabernacle. The directions come under three heads.

First, the removal of persons who may be defiled by leprosy, or by bodily issue, or by contact with death. Leprosy is a type of that "sin in the flesh," of which Romans 8:3 speaks. The "issue" reminds us of the words of our Lord, "that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man" (Matthew 15:11). Man being corrupted by sin, everything that comes out of him is defiled and defiling; and then "sin when it is finished, bringeth forth death," as the Apostle James tells us.

A second source of defilement meets us in verses Numbers 4:5-10. Trespass against the Lord and one's neighbour is contemplated. This was to be met by confession and by restitution with a fifth part added. This regulation has a very definite voice for us today. Confession was the first thing, but by itself it was not enough. There is, we fear, today much defilement, even among the true saints of God, springing from trespass, in speech as well as in act, all of which is grieving to the Holy Spirit and a great hindrance to spiritual blessing. Not infrequently has a time of awakening and conversion amongst sinners been preceded by a time of revival amongst saints, when conviction of trespasses against their Lord and their fellow-Christians has seized them, followed by confession and restitution, as far as lay in their power.

Thirdly, we have, from verse Numbers 4:11 to the end of the chapter, what is spoken of as "the law of jealousies." The camp was to be holy as the dwelling place of God, and if jealousy as to his wife entered the mind of a man, it was not to be left to rankle there but to be tested, whether based on fact or fancy. If true, judgment fell on the woman; if false, she was free, and demonstrated to be so. We may see here a type of that which marked Israel and Jerusalem, indicated for instance in Ezekiel 16:1-63. Possibly too this was in the mind of the Apostle Paul when he wrote 2 Corinthians 11:2.

Israel had to learn that their Jehovah was "a jealous God," and we Christians have to remember that the Lord Jesus, in whom our faith reposes, is jealous of the affections and devotions of His saints, and something of that righteous and holy jealousy was in the heart of the Apostle as he thought of the way in which the Corinthians were unequally yoking themselves with the men of the world, as to which he warned them in 1 Corinthians 6:1-20. It was the loss of "first love" for Christ that helped on all the evils that developed in the Churches of Revelation 2:1-29; Revelation 3:1-22.

In Numbers 4:1-49 then, we have the order of Levitical service, appointed of God, for the removing and setting up of the tabernacle; and in Numbers 5:1-31, the removal of that which would defile the camp in the midst of which God's habitation was placed. Now, in Numbers 6:1-27, we have the very opposite, since he, who undertook the Nazarite's vow, placed himself in the most holy, or separated, position open to an Israelite. The meaning of the name, Nazarite, is "a separated one."

According to our chapter a man might make a vow to separate himself unto the Lord for a certain period, and if so, he placed himself under a threefold obligation, which he had to observe "all the days of his separation." The only actual case, recorded in the Old Testament, is that of Samson, and he was to be a life-long Nazarite from his birth, as we see in Judges 13:5. He did not take the vow upon him it was placed upon him by God, and his supernatural strength depended upon his faithful observance of it. The story of how he was seduced from it, we all know.

It would appear that John the Baptist was from birth under this or a similar vow. In Luke 1:15, abstinence from wine or strong drink is mentioned, but not the two other things. Here we have a contrast. The strength of Samson was physical; John's strength was spiritual. The one lost his Nazariteship the other retained it until he died a martyr's death.

In the first place the Nazarite undertook to abstain from the fruit of the vine in all its forms. In those regions the vine grew in abundance, and nothing was more common and ordinary as drink than wine. Under this vow of separation to God a man had to make himself quite peculiar by declining it in all its forms.

The second stipulation was that he must let the hair of his head grow without cutting it. This was something purely external. Only the friends and acquaintances of the man would know that he did not touch the fruit of the vine in any of its forms, but as he went about anyone could see the peculiar feature of his long hair.

Thirdly, he was to avoid all contact with a dead body. Much was made of death in those days, and great were the lamentations and the mournings. Not to come nigh even when father or mother, brother or sister died, was separation from life and its ordinary ways indeed! But the Nazarite was a separated man! Separated to his God.

These things clearly have a voice to us, though we are not under the law. We may make in the first place a general application. The Christian has been called out of the world system to be for God and to find his joy and exhilaration in heavenly things; setting his mind and affection "on things above, not on things on the earth" (Colossians 3:2). He does not drink of this world's pleasures.

Again, the Christian does not seek the glory of the world. We are told in 1 Corinthians 11:14, 1 Corinthians 11:15, that while long hair is a glory to a woman, it is a shame to a man, since for him it betokened an absence of that virile push and assertion of leadership which is characteristic of the man as distinguished from the woman. Paul's word to the Christian is, "Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand" (Philippians 4:5). The word translated "moderation" means simply, "yieldingness." Knowing his Lord to be near, the Christian can yield to others the glory that men covet.

Lastly, we have to recognize how many things in the world there are which have about them the corruption of death, and, what is even worse, that we carry about in ourselves the flesh, which is like a dead body in its corruption. Hence that word of the Apostle in Romans 7:24, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" — or, "this body of death?" The answer to the question is, "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord." Under His sweet and gracious power we are delivered from the dead body within, as well as the dead bodies in the world without.

But having made this general application we must remember that a special and particular one may also be made. Even today the Lord may call some of His servants to a path of special consecration, though not on the legal basis of a vow. The apostles were so called; pre-eminently so the Apostle Paul who was, "separated unto the gospel of God" (Romans 1:1). The same thing might be said, though in a lesser degree, of a servant like Timothy (see, 1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). Such a special call involves a more complete disentanglement from the ordinary and unsinful pleasures of life than is known by the average Christian. In saying this, we think of 2 Timothy 2:4. No man thus called in a special way to enter into the wars of the Lord, "entangleth himself with the affairs of this life."

Numbers 6:1-27 details for us the offerings to be made; first, if the Nazarite failed in his vow; and second, when his vow was completed without failure. In the former case, the earlier days of his vow were lost, and he had to begin all over again. This was law, but thus it is not under grace. Personally we think that what is recorded in Acts 21:20-26, indicates a lapse in his consecration to Christ on the part of Paul, but his years of separation and devotion to his Lord before that were not treated as a lost thing.

Observing wholehearted devotion and separation from earthly joys, such as was seen in Paul, an unspiritual believer might say, What a straitened and gloomy life! How like living in a monastery, but without monastery walls! Nothing would be more mistaken. It is a life of joy and blessing. Why, this very chapter in Numbers, which gives us the Nazarite vow, ends with the special blessing of Jehovah. It is not indeed a blessing confined to the Nazarite, though such would be included, but rather on the children of Israel, considered as a people upon whom the name of the Lord was to be placed.

What strikes us about the blessing is that, in a day when blessing was so largely connected with earthly and material things, it is so bound up with spiritual things. The shining of Jehovah's face and the lifting up of His countenance surely signifies that Israel might be kept in the light of the revelation of God, as known in their midst. Then they would experience His grace though they were in the dispensation of law, and they would enjoy His peace. Such blessings may be ours today, but in a far larger and richer way, since God is now revealed in Christ.

Numbers 7:1-89, a lengthy one, records the offerings of the princes of Israel, representing the twelve tribes, when Moses had set up the tabernacle and anointed it. Coming in at this point, it reminds us that if it is God's thought to bless His people richly — as at the end of chapter 6 — it is equally His thought that His people should respond by their offerings to Him, all of them in connection with the carrying and work of His sanctuary. Verses Numbers 4:2-9 give us the collective offering for the transport of the sanctuary, wagons and oxen, which were given to the sons of Gershon and of Merari. The holy vessels, including the ark, were to be borne on the shoulders of the sons of Kohath, so no wagons or oxen were needed for them. It was this that- David overlooked, when he went to bring back the ark after it had been in the hands of the Philistines, and hence the disaster with Uzzah. Later David recognized his mistake, as we find recorded in 1 Chronicles 15:13. God had to be sought "after the due order."

The rest of the chapter is occupied with the separate offering of the princes in connection with "the dedication of the altar." Each offered separately on his day, but each offered the same things. Vessels were presented — chargers, bowls, spoons — but none of them were empty; they contained fine flour mingled with oil as a meat offering, or incense. But whether for a meat offering or for burnt or sin offering, all that they presented spoke in some way of Christ. Doubtless they did not know this, but it is our privilege to discern it.

The last verse tells us that these offerings made, Moses went into the tabernacle to speak with God, and then he heard God speaking to him from the mercy seat. Numbers 8:1-26 begins the recital of the further things that God had to say.

The first word was instruction to Aaron as to lighting the seven lamps on the candlestick, which had been made, as verse Numbers 4:4 tells us, according to the instructions recorded in Exodus 25:1-40. Then, from verse Numbers 4:5 to the end of the chapter, is the record of the purifying and consecration of the Levites. It is worthy of note that of all the sacred furniture of the tabernacle the candlestick only is mentioned here, and the shining of its light has a typical significance.

Numbers 7:1-89 has shown us that God may be served by the offerings of His people, and that God takes notice of these offerings in an individual way. They were not all lumped together — a good many verses might have been saved had they been — each prince, each tribe is named, and full details of each offering given. Then, God may be served by the activities of His people. This is seen in the Levites, as recorded in Numbers 8:1-26. But all will be estimated by God in the light of the sanctuary; that is, the light of the Holy Spirit. And further, we must remember that the light of the Spirit is to shine through us, His people. The Spirit of Christ is to shine out in both what we offer and in the active service we are privileged to render. Only as this is so will the Lord's words, in Matthew 5:16, be fulfilled in us.

God's claim on the Levites, inasmuch as they were substituted for the firstborn, is reiterated in our chapter. They were servants to Him, but first they had to be cleansed. They were not bathed all over, as were the priests, but only sprinkled with "water of purifying," and then not only were they to wash their clothes but also "shave all their flesh." This should teach us that we need not only the cleansing of the word before we engage actively in the Lord's service but also the removal of the things that mark and distinguish us as men in the flesh. When this is observed we are cleansed from ourselves and fit for service.

Then the Levites had to present their offerings, the whole congregation of the people having identified themselves with them by laying on of hands. The force of this rite is clearly shown here, and by it the people identified themselves with the service, so that they were regarded as serving their God in the service of the Levites.

The closing verses show that Levitical service began at twenty-five years of age, and after five preliminary years, full service began at thirty and continued until fifty. After fifty their heavy labours ended but they still ministered and kept the charge. Old age did not end their privilege of service but only altered its character.

We have to recognize that today every saint is called to Levitical service as well as priestly service. Let us humbly confess how short — how very far short — we come in both directions.

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Numbers 4:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/numbers-4.html. 1947.

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