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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit Commentaries
Numbers 18

 

 

Verses 1-32

EXPOSITION

STATUS AND REVENUES OF PRIESTS AND LEVITES (Numbers 18:1-32).

Numbers 18:1

The Lord spake unto Aaron. This clear and comprehensive instruction as to the position and support of the sons of Aaron on the one hand, and of the Levites on the other, may very naturally have been given in connection with the events just narrated. There is, however, no direct reference to those events, and it is quite possible that the only connection was one of subject-matter in the mind of the writer. That the regulations which follow were addressed to Aaron directly is a thing unusual, and indeed unexampled. The ever-recurring statement elsewhere is, "the Lord spake unto Moses," varied occasionally by "the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron" (as in Numbers 2:1; Numbers 4:1; Numbers 19:1); but even where the communication refers to things wholly and peculiarly within the province of Aaron, it is usually made to Moses, and only through him to his brother (see e.g; Numbers 8:1-3). This change in the form of the message may point to a later date, i.e; to a time subsequent to the gainsaying of Korah, when the separate position of Aaron as the head of a priestly caste was more fully recognized than before, and he himself somewhat less under the shadow of his greater brother. Thou and thy sons and thy father's house with thee shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary. Aaron's father's house, according to the analogy of Numbers 17:2, Numbers 17:3, Numbers 17:6, was the sub-tribe of the Kohathites, and these had charge (to the exclusion of the other Levites) of the sanctuary, or rather sacred things. See on Numbers 4:15. This mention of the Kohathites in connection with the sanctuary is an incidental proof that these instructions were given in view of the wanderings in the wilderness, for after the settlement in Canaan no Levites (as such) came into contact with the sacred furniture. It is not easy to define exactly the meaning of "shall bear the iniquity ( תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת־עַוֹן) of the sanctuary." The general sense of the phrase is, "to be responsible for the iniquity," i.e; for anything which caused displeasure in the eyes of God, "in connection with the sacred things and the service of them;" hence it meant either to be responsible for such iniquity, as being held accountable for it, and having to endure the penalty, or as being permitted and enabled to take such accountability on oneself, and so discharge it from others. This double sense is exactly reflected in the Greek word αἴρειν, as applied to our Lord (John 1:29). The priests, therefore (and the Kohathites, so far as they had anything to do with the sanctuary), were responsible for all the unholiness attaching or accruing to it, not only by reason of all offences committed by themselves, but by reason of that imperfection which clung to them at the best, and made them unworthy to handle the things of God. In a further and deeper sense they might be said to be vicariously responsible for all the iniquity of all Israel, so far as the taint of it affected the very sanctuary (see on Exodus 28:38; Le Exodus 16:16). The iniquity of your priesthood. The responsibility not only for all sinful acts of omission and commission in Divine service (such as those of Nadab and Abihu, and of Korah), but for all the inevitable failure of personal holiness on the part of those who ministered unto the Lord. This responsibility was emphatically recognized and provided for in the rites of the great day of atonement.

Numbers 18:2

Thy brethren also of the tribe of Levi. The Levites generally, as distinguished from the Kohathites in particular (see on Numbers 3:1-51). That they may be joined unto thee. וְילָּווּ, a play upon the name Levi (see on Genesis 29:34). But thou and thy sons with thee shall minister before the tabernacle of witness. The Hebrew has only וְאַתָּה וּבָנֶיךָ אִתָּךְ, which may be rendered, "And thou and thy sons with thee (shall be)," &c; or more naturally read with what goes before, "that they may minister unto thee; both thee and thy sons with thee," &c. The Septuagint and the Targums appear to favour the former rendering, but it is not evident what distinction could be drawn between priests and Levites as to the mere fact of being before the tabernacle.

Numbers 18:3

They shall keep thy charge, &c. See on Numbers 3:7, Numbers 3:8. That neither they, nor ye also, die. This warning does not seem to refer to the danger of the Kohathites seeing the sacred things (Numbers 4:15), but of the other Levites coming near them; the further warning, "nor ye also," is added because if the carelessness or profanity of the priest led to sacrilege and death in the case of the Levite, it would be laid to his charge (cf. Numbers 4:18).

Numbers 18:4

A stranger. וֶר, i.e; one not a Levite, as in Numbers 1:51.

Numbers 18:5

That there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel. As there had been ill the case of Korah and his company, and of the many thousands who had fallen in consequence.

Numbers 18:6

I have taken your brethren the Levites. See on Numbers 3:9; Numbers 8:19.

Numbers 18:7

Shall keep your priests' office for everything of the altar, and within the vail. That the Levites were made over to Aaron and his sons to relieve them of a great part of the mere routine and drudgery of their service was to be with them an additional and powerful motive for doing their priestly work so reverently and watchfully as to leave no excuse for sacrilegious intrusion. The altar (of burnt offering) and "that within the vail (cf. Hebrews 6:19) were the two points between which the exclusive duties of the priesthood lay, including the service of the holy place. A service of gift. A service which was not to be regarded as a burden, or a misfortune, or as a natural heritage and accident of birth, but to be received and cherished as a favour accorded to them by the goodness of God.

Numbers 18:8

And the Lord spake unto Aaron. The charge and responsibility of the priests having been declared, the provision for their maintenance is now to be set forth. The charge, מִשְׁמֶרֶת, as in Numbers 18:5, &c.; but here it means "the keeping" for their own use (cf. Exodus 12:6). Mine heave offerings. תְּרוּמֹתָי. The possessive pronoun marks the fact that these did not belong to the priest in the first instance, although they naturally came to be looked on as his perquisites (cf. 1 Samuel 2:16), but were a gift to him from the Lord out of what the people had dedicated. The word terumoth must here be understood in its widest sense, as including everything which the Israelites dedicated or "lifted" of all their possessions, so far as these were not destroyed in the act of offering. Of all the hallowed things. The genitive of identity: "consisting of all the hallowed things." By reason of the anointing. Rather, "for a portion," לְמָשְׁחָה (see on Le Numbers 7:35). The Septuagint has εἰς γέρας, "as an honour," or peculium.

Numbers 18:9

Reserved from fire, i.e; from the sacrificial altar. Every oblation of theirs. As specified in the following clauses. The burnt offering is not mentioned because it was wholly consumed, and only the skin fell to the priest. The sin offerings for the priest or for the congregation were also wholly consumed (Le Numbers 4:12, Numbers 4:21), but the sin offerings of private individuals, although in no case partaken of by the offerers, were available for the priests (Le Numbers 6:26), and this was the ordinary case.

Numbers 18:10

In the most holy place thou shalt eat it. בְּקֹדֶשׁ הַדָקֹּשִׁים. Septuagint, ἐν τῷ ἀγίῳ τῶν ἁγίων. This expression is somewhat perplexing, because it stands commonly for the holy of holies (Exodus 26:33). As it cannot possibly have that meaning here, two interpretations have been proposed.

1. That it means the court of the tabernacle, called "the holy place" in Le Numbers 6:16, Numbers 6:26; Numbers 7:6, and there specified as the only place in which the meat offerings, the sin offerings, and trespass offerings might be eaten. There is no reason why this court should not be called "must holy," as well as "holy;" if it was "holy" with respect to the camp, or the holy city, it was "most holy" with respect to all without the camp, or without the gate.

2. That the expression does not mean "in the most holy place," but "amongst the most holy things," as it does in Numbers 4:4, and above in Numbers 4:9. A distinction is clearly intended between the "most holy things," which only the priests and their sons might eat, and the "holy things," of which the rest of their families might partake also. It is difficult to decide between these renderings, although there can be no doubt that the "most holy" things were actually to be consumed within the tabernacle precincts.

Numbers 18:11

And this is thine. Here begins a second list of holy gifts which might be eaten at home by all members of the priestly families who were clean; they included

Numbers 18:12

All the best. Literally, "all the fat" (cf. Genesis 45:18).

Numbers 18:14

Everything devoted. כָּל־חֵרֶם. Septuagint, πᾶν ἀνατεθεματισμένον, all deodands, or things vowed (see on Le 27:28).

Numbers 18:16

From a month old. Literally, "from the monthly child," as soon as they reach the age of one month. According to thine estimation. See on Le Numbers 5:15; Numbers 27:2-7. It would seem that the priest was to make the valuation for the people, since each first-born or firstling was separately claimed by God, and had to be separately redeemed; but at the same time, to prevent extortion, the sum which the priest might assess was fixed by God. For the money of five shekels. About seventeen shillings of our money (see Numbers 3:47). It is extremely drill cult to estimate the number of first-born, but it is evident that in any ease a large income must have accrued to the priests in this way. No value is here set upon the firstlings of unclean beasts; in the most usual ease, that of the ass, the rule had been laid down in Exodus 13:13; and in other cases it was apparently left to the discretion of the priests, subject to the right of the owner, if he saw fit, to destroy the animal rather than pay for it (see Le 27:27).

Numbers 18:17

But the firstling of a cow, &c. Only those things which were not available for sacrifice could be redeemed; the rest must be offered to him that claimed them. The first-born of men belonged partially to both classes: on the one hand, they could not be sacrificed, and therefore were redeemed with money; on the other hand, they could be dedicated (being clean), and therefore had been exchanged for the Levites.

Numbers 18:18

The flesh of them shall be thine, as the wave breast and as the right shoulder are thine. This is on the face of it inconsistent with the direction given in Deuteronomy 15:19, Deuteronomy 15:20, that the flesh of the first-lings should be eaten by the offerers in the holy place (cf. also Deuteronomy 12:17, Deuteronomy 12:18). Two explanations have been proposed.

1. That the firstlings were given to the priest in the same sense as the peace offerings, i.e; only as regarded the breast and shoulder, while the rest went to the offerer. This, however, does obvious violence to the language, and is not supported by the Septuagint.

2. That as the priest was bound to consume the firstlings with his family, and could not sell them, he would be certainly disposed to invite the offerer to join him in the sacred meal. This may have been usually the case, but it was entirely within the option of the priest, and could scarcely be made the basis of a direct command, like that of Deuteronomy 15:19, still less of an indirect assumption, like that of Deuteronomy 12:17, Deuteronomy 12:18, that the firstlings stood upon the same footing as free-will offerings and heave offerings. It is easier to suppose that the law was actually modified in this, as in some other particulars.

Numbers 18:19

All the heave offerings of the holy things. Those, viz; enumerated from Numbers 18:9. It is a covenant of salt for ever. Septuagint, διαθήκη ἀλὸς αἰωνίου (cf. 2 Chronicles 13:5). Salt was the natural emblem of that which is incorruptible; wherefore a binding alliance was (and still is) made by eating bread and salt together, and salt was always added to the sacrifices of the Lord.

Numbers 18:20

Thou shalt have no inheritance in their land. The priests had of necessity homes wherein to live when not on duty, but they had no territory of their own in the same sense as Jews of other tribes. I am thy part and thine inheritance. Septuagint, ἐγὼ μερίς σου καὶ κληρονομία σου. This is not to be explained away, as if it meant only that they were to live "of the altar." Just as the priests (and in a lesser sense all the Levites) were the special possession of the Lord, so the Lord was the special possession of the priests; and inasmuch as all the whole earth belonged to him, the portion of the priests was, potentially in all cases, actually for those who were capable of realizing it, infinitely more desirable than any other portion. The spiritual meaning of the promise was so clearly felt that it was constantly claimed by the devout in Israel, irrespective of their ecclesiastical status (cf. Psalms 16:5; Lamentations 3:24, &c.).

Numbers 18:21

All the tenth. The tithe of all fruits and flocks had been already claimed absolutely by the Lord (Le 27:30, 32). It is probable indeed that the giving of tithes had been more or less a matter of obligation from time immemorial. Abraham had paid them on one memorable occasion (Genesis 14:20), and Jacob had vowed them on another (Genesis 28:22). From this time forth, however, the tithes were formally assigned to the maintenance of the Levites, in return for their service.

Numbers 18:22

Lest they boar sin, and die. לָשֵׂאת חֵטְא לָמוּת. Septuagint, λαβεῖν ἀμαρτίαν θανατηφόρον. In the sense of incurring sin, and the consequent wrath and death.

Numbers 18:23

And they shall bear ( יִשְׂאוּ) their iniquity. The Levites were to take the responsibility of the general iniquity so far as approach to the tabernacle was concerned. They have no inheritance. Like the priests, they had homes and cities, and they had pasturages attached to these cities, but no separate territory.

Numbers 18:24

As an heave offering. This means nothing more than an "offering" apparently. It is not to be supposed that any ritual was observed in the giving of tithes.

Numbers 18:25

And the Lord spake unto Moses. This part of the instruction alone is addressed to Moses, probably because it determined a question as between priests and Levites to the advantage of the former, and therefore would not have come well from Aaron.

Numbers 18:26

Ye shall offer up an heave offering of it for the Lord, even a tenth part of the tithe. Thus the principle of giving a tenth part of all to God was carried out consistently throughout the whole of his people.

Numbers 18:28

Ye shall give thereof the Lord's heave offering to Aaron the priest. The Levites tithed the people, the priests tithed the Levites. At this time the other Israelites were nearly fifty times as numerous as the Levites, and therefore they would have been exceptionally well provided for. It must be remembered, however, that the Levites would naturally increase faster than the rest, not being exposed to the same dangers; and still more that tithes are never paid at all fully or generally, even when of strict legal obligation. A glance along the history of Israel after the conquest will satisfy us that at no time could the people at large be trusted to pay their tithes, unless it were during the ascendancy of the Maccabees, and afterwards under the influence of the Pharisees (cf. Malachi 3:9, Malachi 3:10). The Levites, indeed, appear in the history of Israel as the reverse of an opulent or influential class. It was no doubt much easier for the sons of Aaron to obtain their tithes from the Levites; and as these were very numerous in proportion, and the tithes themselves were only a part of their revenues, the priests should have been, and in later times certainly were, sufficiently rich. If they were devout they no doubt spent much on the service of the altar and of the sanctuary.

Numbers 18:30

Thou shalt say unto them, i.e; to the Levites. When they had dedicated their tithe of the best part, the rest was theirs exactly as if they had grown it and gathered it themselves.

Numbers 18:32

Ye shall bear no sin. עָלָיו לֹא־תִשְׂאוּ. They would not incur any guilty responsibility by enjoying it as and where they pleased. Neither shall ye pollute the holy things of the children of Israel, lest ye die. This seems to be the tree translation, and it conveyed a final warning. See Le Numbers 22:2 for one very obvious way in which the Levites might pollute "holy things."

HOMILETICS

Numbers 18:1-32

RESPONSIBILITIES AND PRIVILEGES OF GOD'S SERVANTS

We have in this chapter, spiritually, the status of those who are ἱερεῖς τῷ θεῷ and δοῦλαι ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ, as being the inheritance of the Lord, and (in this world) "having nothing, and yet possessing all things." Much that has been considered under the head of Numbers 3:1-51, Numbers 4:1-49, and Numbers 8:1-26 is applicable here. Consider, therefore—

I. THAT A HEAVY RESPONSIBILITY WEIGHED UPON PRIEST AND LEVITE IN RESPECT OF THE SANCTUARY, OF WHICH THEY HAD THE CHARGE AND THE HANDLING. Whatever pollution came upon it was chargeable upon them in the double sense,

Even so all the faithful in Christ Jesus are deeply responsible for all the shame, reproach, and disparagement which comes upon that temple which is themselves (Ephesians 2:22; 1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 3:6), and that in the following senses:—

1. So far as such evils may be due to their own sin or carelessness (Matthew 18:6, Matthew 18:7; Romans 14:15, Romans 14:16; 1 Corinthians 10:32; 2 Corinthians 6:3; 1 Thessalonians 5:22).

2. So far as the evil can be undone or counteracted by their own piety and zeal (Matthew 5:16; Philippians 2:15, Philippians 2:16; 1 Peter 2:12).

3. If this cannot be, then at least to this extent, that they bear it on their heart in sorrow and in prayer (Ezekiel 9:4; Daniel 9:20; 1 Corinthians 12:25, 1 Corinthians 12:26; 2 Corinthians 11:29). Nothing is worse than the complacency with which Christians regard the scandals of religion, although such are often due in part to themselves, or might in part be cured by their own efforts, or should at least be a cause of inward grief and humiliation to them as members of Christ.

II. THAT A SIMILAR RESPONSIBILITY ATTACHED TO THE PRIESTHOOD IN RESPECT TO ALL FAULTS AND IMPERFECTIONS ATTENDING ITS EXERCISE. Even so it is no light or trivial thing to have received an unction from the Holy One, making us, in any sense of the words, priests unto God. There are no vain titles in the kingdom of heaven to gratify man's love of distinction; whatever we have is a dispensation committed unto us (1 Corinthians 9:17); any ministry in discharged, made a scandal or offence, is ruin to the soul (1 Corinthians 4:2; Colossians 4:17; 1 Timothy 4:16; Revelation 3:2, Revelation 3:15, Revelation 3:16).

III. THAT THEY WERE UNDER SPECIAL RESPONSIBILITY TO WATCH THEIR WATCH AND OBSERVE THE DUTIES OF THEIR OFFICE ABOUT THE SANCTUARY AND THE ALTAR, lest wrath should come upon the people. Even so the custodians of Divine truth are under special obligation to guard most carefully and reverently the two doctrines of Jesus in heaven ("that within the vail," Hebrews 6:19, Hebrews 6:20) and of Jesus upon the cross (Hebrews 9:14), lest, either being tampered with, damage should accrue to the souls of men.

IV. THAT THE OFFICE OF THE PRIESTS WAS "A SERVICE OF GIFT." Even so every office in the Church of God is a service, for there is no such thing as a sinecure in the kingdom of heaven; and it is a service of gift, because it is not a matter of earthly honor, or of pay, or of human choice, or even of personal aptness, but of free grace and gift on the part of God—a trust conferred, a bounty bestowed.

V. THAT THE PRIESTS "WERE PARTAKERS WITH THE ALTAR." Even so hath the Lord ordained, &c. (1 Corinthians 9:13, 1 Corinthians 9:14).

Consider again, with respect to the Levites—

I. THAT THEY WERE GIVEN TO AARON TO "WATCH HIS WATCH" AND "THE WATCH OF ALL THE TABERNACLE." Even so are all the kindred of Christ given unto him to be his soldiers and servants to keep his watches, and to be the guardians of his spiritual house until he come again (Mark 13:35-37; 1 Corinthians 16:13; Ephesians 5:15; Revelation 16:15).

II. THAT WHILE EVER WATCHFUL AND ON THE ALERT, THEY MUST NOT INTRUDE UPON THE SACRED THINGS OF THE SANCTUARY? OR THE ALTAR, ON PAIN OF DEATH.

Even so it is fatal presumption and loss of spiritual life when men leave their practical duties to "intrude" by vain speculation into "those things which they have not seen" in the heavenly state; or when they pry curiously into the unrevealed mysteries of the cross, "which things the angels desire to look into," yet forbear, because it is not given them to understand (Colossians 2:18; 1 Peter 1:12).

Consider again, with respect to Aaron and the people at large—

I. THAT EVERY OBLATION OR OFFERING OF THEIRS WAS GIVEN TO AARON. Even so everything which the piety or gratitude of man freely offers to God has been made over to Christ, as the High Priest of our profession, by an indefeasible title (Matthew 11:27; Matthew 28:18; 1 Corinthians 3:23).

II. THAT THE FIRST AND BEST (THE FAT) OF EVERYTHING was TO BE GIVEN TO GOD AND TO AARON. Even so ought every faithful person to dedicate the first and best of all he has (or is) to the Lord and his Christ. It is a fearful thing to put him off with the odds and ends of our time, the gleanings of our mind and thought, the stray coins of our wealth.

III. THAT EVERYTHING UNDER A BAN—A VOW, OR CURSEWAS GIVEN TO AARON. Even so does every soul devoted to destruction, every soul under the curse, belong to Christ, because he was made a curse for us, and devoted himself to death and wrath for our redemption; wherefore all souls are his, being given unto him of the Father for his portion.

IV. THAT ALL THE PEOPLE WERE TO PAY TITHES TO THE LEVITES, AND THE LEVITES THEMSELVES TO AARON, and thus the principle was doubly maintained that a tenth part of all was due to God for the support of religion. Aaron did not pay tithes, because he was the figure of Christ himself. Even so all good Christian people are bound, not of necessity to give an exact and literal tenth, but certainly no less than that, unless they think that their obligation to God is less than that of the Jews. This may be enforced by the following considerations:—

1. We are as much beholden for all we have to the mere bounty of Providence as the Jews.

2. We are in at least as much danger of covetousness as they.

3. We are much more in the practice of luxury and superfluity than they.

4. We are more distinctly called to a voluntary choice of (comparative) poverty than they (Matthew 13:22; Matthew 19:23; 1 Timothy 6:6-10).

5. There is more need of abundant offerings now than then, because we have all the world to evangelize, instead of a single temple with its services to maintain.

6. Our giving should be more ample, just because it is left to the holy impulse of faith and love. God has refrained from demanding a tenth in order that we might freely give—more (Malachi 3:10; Matthew 26:13; Acts 2:45; Acts 20:35; Philemon 1:19, &c.).

V. THAT THE LEVITES, HAVING "HEAVED FROM THE BEST" OF ALL THEY RECEIVED, WERE THEN TO ENJOY THE REMAINDER WITH A CLEAR CONSCIENCE. Even so the servants of Christ, when they have dedicated (and only when) the best of all they have—time, money, talents, opportunities, influence—to the direct service of Christ, may enjoy the good things which fall to them with singleness and gladness of heart (Luke 11:41; Acts 2:46; 1 Timothy 6:18; and cf. 1 Kings 17:13 sq.).

Consider again, with respect to priests and Levites—

THAT THEY HAD NO INHERITANCE AMONGST THE TRIBES, BUT THE LORD WAS THEIR PORTION AND THEIR INHERITANCE. Even so hath the Lord given unto us no inheritance in this world, because he himself is ours, as we are his. We do indeed have (most of us) many things richly to enjoy, but these are Dot our own, as the world counts its good things its own, but are only lent for an uncertain season (Luke 16:11, Luke 16:12—what we have here is "another man's," as distinguished from "our own"); and that we have anything at all is only of indulgence, not of right, nor of promise (Matthew 19:21; Luke 12:33; John 16:33; Acts 14:22 b; James 2:5); and, further, whatever we have we hold only on condition of giving it up at once, without complaint or astonishment, if called thereunto (Luke 14:26; Hebrews 10:34; James 1:10; Revelation 3:17; Revelation 12:11). Nevertheless, we are not poor, though having nothing; but rich beyond compare, having the Pearl of great price, and the Treasure (albeit "hid" for the present, Colossians 2:3), and the bright and morning Star (2 Peter 1:19 b), and in him all things indeed (1 Corinthians 3:21, 1 Corinthians 3:22; 2 Corinthians 4:18; Revelation 3:20; cf. Genesis 15:1 b; Psalms 16:5; Psalms 73:26, &c.).

Consider again, with respect to sacrifice—

THAT CERTAIN THINGS MOST HOLY MIGHT BE CONSUMED ONLY WITHIN THE SACRED PRECINCTS BY THE PRIESTS THEMSELVES; OTHERS HOLY, BUT NOT SO HOLY, AT HOME BY ALL MEMBERS OF THE FAMILY. Even so there are things pertaining to the one sacrifice for sin with which none may intermeddle but the priest himself of the sacrifice; others which may be shared in common amongst all members of the family of Christ. Or, in another sense, there are aspects of the atonement which can only be made our own in a religious solitude and retirement, and which are profaned by being brought abroad; others, again, which befit the common and social life of Christian people, always providing that no "uncleanness," i.e; no unrepented sin, hinder them from having part or lot therein.

HOMILIES BY E.S. PROUT

Numbers 18:1-7

THE RESPONSIBILITY OF AUTHORITY

Recent assaults on the priesthood give occasion for a reaffirmation of its prerogatives. Lest this should tend unduly to elate the family of Aaron, the same Divine oracle which confirms to them their distinguished privileges insists on their grave responsibilities.

I. THE DISTINGUISHED PRIVILEGES OF THE PRIESTS.

1. The priest's office is described as "a service of gift," conferred by God himself (Hebrews 5:4).

2. It was confined to the family of Aaron (Numbers 18:2).

3. It had special duties into which not even the priests' kindred, the Levites, might intrude (Numbers 18:3; Numbers 4:4-15).

4. The priests had authority over the Levites as their ministers (Numbers 18:2), and over the people in a variety of ways: teachers (Le Numbers 10:11); mediators of blessing (Numbers 6:22-26; Deuteronomy 21:5); judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-13); sanitary officers (Leviticus 13:1-59, Leviticus 14:1-57).

5. Provision was made for their daily wants, that they might "attend upon the Lord" without distraction (Numbers 18:8-15).

6. They were thus, as mediators, the means of averting wrath from the nation (Numbers 18:5).

II. THEIR GRAVE RESPONSIBILITIES. Lest Aaron's "pride" should "bud" (Ezekiel 7:10), even as his rod had, and the priests should be exalted above measure through the abundance of their privileges, they are reminded of some of their responsibilities.

1. The priests and their father's house (the Levites or Kohathites) had to "bear the iniquity of the sanctuary" (cf. Exodus 28:38). Some errors might be atoned for, but they were responsible for any profanation of the tabernacle.

2. The priests alone had to "bear the iniquity of their priesthood." An annual atonement provided (Le Numbers 16:6), but not for such willful transgressions as Nadab's, or for gross neglect (e.g; Le Numbers 22:9).

3. They had a responsibility in regard to the Levites, not to allow them to intrude into the priest's office, that neither they nor ye also die" (Numbers 18:3).

4. The neglect of these duties might be fatal to others as well as to themselves (Numbers 18:3, Numbers 18:5).

These two truths admit of various applications.

1. To Christian rulers, to statesmen called to the duty of governing a country on Christian principles, but incurring tremendous responsibility thereby. Illustrate from the history of Jeroboam (cf. Jeremiah 45:5; Luke 12:48).

2. To Christian teachers (1 Timothy 3:1, yet James 3:1). The burden of responsibility quite to account for the "Nolo Episcopari." Yet where God calls to the honour he will give strength and grace for the burden.—P.

Numbers 18:20

GOD, THE BEST INHERITANCE

The tribe of Levi was left out in the division of the land. Some of its members might have wished to be landowners rather than Levites. Yet their loss was a special privilege, for they were selected that they might "come nigh to God," and serve in his tabernacle. God who called them did not forget them. They received houses, gardens, pasture lands (Numbers 35:1-8), and tithes (Numbers 18:21), and were commended to the care and sympathy of the nation (Deuteronomy 12:12, Deuteronomy 12:14, Deuteronomy 12:27-29). Just so, under the gospel, those called to give up their lives to the service of God, though they may not have even manses or glebes, are provided for by God through the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:13, 1 Corinthians 9:14), and are commended to the care of his people (Galatians 6:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:13). Let no young Christians who hear God's call to be pastors, evangelists, or missionaries hesitate to obey it. They may have many trials and heart-aches, but they know God's word: "Them that honour me I will honor." Their experience may be that of the Apostle's (Luke 22:35), for their Master's promise stands good (Matthew 19:29). But the privilege of the Levites may be enjoyed by all God's servants who can say with David, "The Lord is the portion of my inheritance."

I. THE CHRISTIAN'S INHERITANCE. Wisdom is needed in choosing an earthly inheritance or investing our "portion" of this world's goods. It may be invested in a freehold, embarked in a business venture, spent on one's own education, or squandered in riotous living. Much more is wisdom needed in regard to the soul's inheritance. Other portions allure some: modern idolatries, worldly wealth or ease (Psalms 17:14; Isaiah 57:6). But the Christian, like a loyal Levite, prefers God without the land to the land without God. He has committed his soul entirely to God. He has no second spiritual portion to fall back upon if this should fail him. Of this he has no fear. He has accepted God's offer to be his God and his portion, and he can say 2 Timothy 1:12.

II. THE RESPONSIBILITIES AND PRIVILEGES OF HAVING SUCH AN INHERITANCE. The grave responsibilities of the Levites have their parallel in the entire consecration needed from every Christian (Psalms 119:57; Titus 2:14). But we need not shrink from our responsibilities when we remember our privileges. The two things most needed in our inheritance are safety and sufficiency.

1. Safety. If God is our portion, he himself is our security (Deuteronomy 33:27). When be invited us to take him as our portion, it was because he took us as his inheritance (Deuteronomy 32:9; Isaiah 43:1; 1 Corinthians 3:23).

"Be thou my God, and the whole world is mine.

Whilst thou art Sovereign, I'm secure;

I shall be rich till thou art poor;

For all I hope and all I fear, heaven, earth, and hell, are thine."

2. Sufficiency. So was it with the Levites (verse 21, &c.), David (Psalms 16:6), Jacob (cf. Genesis 28:21; Genesis 48:15, Genesis 48:16), and so is it with all Christians. In God they have sufficiency for both spiritual wants (John 1:16; 1 Corinthians 3:21, 1 Corinthians 3:22; James 4:6) and temporal also (Psalms 84:11, Psalms 84:12; Matthew 6:33; Philippians 4:19).

We can thus recommend God as the best portion for all.

1. A good portion for the young, who, like those born heirs to an estate, are entitled to this inheritance if they will claim it.

2. A good marriage portion. Illustration—Ruth, who brought Boaz an excellent portion (Ruth 1:16, Ruth 1:17; Ruth 2:11, Ruth 2:12).

3. A good inheritance in troublous times when banks and companies are failing. None of these vicissitudes in our inheritance (Deuteronomy 32:31).

4. A good inheritance in reserve (Lamentations 3:24). That hope cannot be disappointed; the heirs of God know that "still there's more to follow" (Psalms 31:19).

5. A good inheritance on a dying bed. Then all earthly inheritance daily drop in value to the proprietor, and at last "flesh and heart fail." But the Christian can say Psalms 73:26. Because God has been the "portion of his inheritance" he can add Psalms 16:8, Psalms 16:9, Psalms 16:11.—P.

HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG

Numbers 18:1

THE INIQUITY OF THE SANCTUARY AND PRIESTHOOD

It is full of significance that this provision for the iniquity of the sanctuary and priesthood stands first among the regulations of this chapter. Though God had separated Aaron, and in recent transactions exalted and glorified him, he had not thereby made it an easy or certain thing to serve in this office of priest as in all respects one was required to serve. God had called Israel to be his own people, and honoured them, but they were very perverse in all their ways. It is therefore far from wonderful that Aaron and the Levites, being of the same flesh and blood as rebellious Israel, should have fallen short in the holy service to which they were appointed. That rebellious spirit Korah, who was a Kohathite, shows how much iniquity could attach to the sanctuary; and the iniquity of the priesthood is amply shown in Aaron's conduct when he made the golden calf, and joined Miriam in her envious outbreak against Moses. But even apart from such capital instances of transgression, we may be sure there was continual iniquity both in sanctuary and priesthood—things done too often in a formal, listless way, priest and Levite alike conscious that the heart was not always in the work. It was necessary to provide also for imperfections in the offerings. The animals without blemish were only relatively so, not blemished so far as the contributors knew, the very pick, doubtless, of the flocks and herds. There was sincerity of purpose, but there could not be completeness of knowledge. Hence we are led to consider—

I. THE INEVITABLE SHORTCOMINGS IN OUR HOLIEST SERVICES. Considering how much we fall short even in our relations to men, how deficient in equity, benevolence, and gratitude, we may well feel that the iniquity of our religion must be a very large and serious matter indeed. In relation to God, bow ignorant is the understanding, how dull the conscience, how languid are the affections! What formality and preoccupation in the worship! how apt we are to turn it as far as we can into mere selfish pleasure, from music or eloquence! And when in the mercy of God we become more sensitive to his claims, more spiritually-minded, better able to estimate rightly this present evil world, then also we shall see our shortcomings in a clearer light. Faults that are not noticeable in the dim light of this world's ethics become not only manifest, but hideous and humiliating, when the light that lighteth every man coming into the world shines upon them. The holier we become, the humbler we become; the nearer we draw to God, the more conscious we are of the difference between him and us. We neither repent nor believe as we ought. Praise, prayer, meditation, good works, gospel efforts, all are seen to be not only imperfect, but lamentably so.

II. THE PECULIAR DANGERS WHICH BESET THOSE ENGAGED IN SPECIAL SERVICE. The Levites, however reverently they might at first bear the ark and the holy vessels, would gradually and insensibly contract a sort of indifference. The burdens would become like other burdens, thoughtlessly and mechanically borne. It is no easy matter for such as have to exhibit God's truth to an indifferent world to keep above indifference themselves. All the more reason, therefore, that they should be on their guard. There must needs be iniquity both in priesthood and sanctuary, but woe either to Aaron or his sons, or any Kohathite who presumed on this as an excuse for relaxing from the strictest attention. Though we cannot attain entire perfection, we are bound to labour on, getting more and more out of mediocrity and formality. Remember the humility, caution, and self-distrust with which Paul invariably speaks of his own attainments, ever magnifying the grace of God, ever confessing his need of Divine support, and the instant failure and danger which come from its withdrawal. Formality in any special work which God may require from his people, say, the exposition and enforcement of his truth, is ruinous. Christian work can never come to appear impossible, but it must never cease to appear difficult. It must always require attention, concentration, self-denial, and patience. It was a saying of J.J. Gurney, "The ministry of the gospel is the only thing I know which practice never makes easy."

III. THE DIFFUSIVE, PENETRATIVE POWER OF SIN. It is not so much as assumed that iniquity of the sanctuary and priesthood could be guarded against. However much was done in this direction, something would be left undone, needing to be provided for in the way of atonement. Sin is working in us and against us even when we are not conscious of it. It is a vain thing to make out that there is not much after all of sin in us, that it is a stage of weakness, ignorance, and imperfection out of which we shall naturally grow.—Y.

Numbers 18:2-7

AARON AND HIS HELPERS

I. AARON HAD MANY HELPERS. No less than a whole tribe of Israel, 22,000 in number (Numbers 3:39). And if it be said, "What work could be found about the tabernacle for so many?" the answer is given in the portioning out of the work among the three great divisions of the tribe. The Levites were not around Aaron like the embellishments of a court, merely to impress the vulgar mind. They were there for work—real, necessary, honourable, beneficial work. A great deal of it might seem humble, but it could not be done without. So notice how Jesus gathered helpers around himself. It was one of the earliest things he did. He gave them also great power, such as to heal diseases, raise dead persons, and cast out demons; that thus they might authenticate the gracious and momentous message with which he had intrusted them. And in the course of ages how the helpers have increased in numbers and in variety of service! Doubtless when Israel settled in Canaan, and the Levites became distributed over the land, it was found that they were not at all too numerous for the religious requirements of the people. Christ is the center and the guide of an immense amount of spiritual industry; nevertheless, the cry goes out that many more hearts and hands might be engaged helping the Divine Saviour of men (John 4:35-38). It will be a long time before the Church has occasion to complain, with respect to labourers together with God, that the supply exceeds the demand. The householder had work to be done in his vineyard even at the eleventh hour.

II. THESE HELPERS MUST BE DULY QUALIFIED. They must all be of the tribe of Levi. Levi was taken in place of the first-born of Israel, and when the first-born were numbered it was found that they somewhat exceeded the number of qualified persons among the Levites. But God did not make up the deficiency by taking from other tribes; he kept the tabernacle service within the limits of Levi, and provided for a ransom instead (Numbers 3:39-51). The service was thus to be a matter of inheritance. Aaron and his sons had their portion—Kohathite, Gershonite, Merarite, each had his own field of work, and was not to transgress it. Strangers were cautioned against putting unauthorized hands on the tabernacle. It was as real a violation of the sanctuary for a common Israelite to touch even a peg of the tabernacle as to intrude within the veil itself. So we should ever look with great jealousy and carefulness on the qualifications for serving Jesus. There have been great hindrances, occasions for blasphemy, because unclean hands have not only meddled with holy things, but kept them long in charge. The service of Jesus should go down by spiritual inheritance. We take care in affairs of this world that there shall be due apprenticeship and preparation, ascertained fitness, the tools intrusted to those who can handle them, and surely there is equal if not greater need in the supremely important affairs of Christ's kingdom. Spiritual things should eve, be in charge of those who have spiritual discernment.

III. THOSE QUALIFIED WERE THEREBY PLACED UNDER OBLIGATION TO SERVE. As the service was confined to Levi, so every Levite, not otherwise disqualified, had to take part in it. There was nothing else for a Levite to do than serve God in connection with the sanctuary. He had no land; he was a substitute for others in holy service, and therefore they had to provide him with the necessaries of life. Thus his way in life was made clear; there was no need to consult personal inclination, and no room for reasonable doubt. And so, generally speaking', what service God expects from us we may be sure he will signify in the clearest manner. If we allow personal inclination to be the great prompter and decider, there is very little we shall do. Many there are whose personal inclinations lead them into some sort of connection with the Church of Christ, and keep them there, yet they never enter into anything like real service. They have a name to serve, yet are only idly busy. Personal inclination is a very small factor in Christian service, at least at the beginning, else Christ would not have been so urgent in his demands for self-denial. Not much, of course, can be done without love; but duty, the sense of what we ought to do, is to be the great power at the beginning. Those who have had the five talents from God may have to appear in his presence to be judged, conscious that not only have the talents been lost to him, but used so selfishly as rather to have gained five talents besides in worldly possessions, influence, and reputation. It is a monstrous sin to use God's property for the low, injurious aims of self. "Power," said John Foster, "to its very last particle, is duty."

IV. THOUGH THEY WERE HELPERS OF AARON, THEY COULD NOT BE HIS SUBSTITUTES. When the priest dies, it is not some experienced and sagacious Levite who can take his place; the priesthood is to be kept in the priest's own family. The hand cannot supply the place of the head. Take away the priest, and the head is gone. Aaron, if it had been necessary, could have stooped to do the humblest Levitical service, but not even the highest of the Kohathites could enter within the veil. And thus must the helpers of Christ ever look on him as separated by his nature and person to a work which no other human being can do. lie did indeed himself take up the work of the Baptist at one time, preaching repentance (Matthew 4:17), and he also at times became his own apostle in proclaiming the gospel; but to his own peculiar work neither Baptist nor apostle could rise. Whatever responsibility be laid on us, we are only helpers at best. Let no admiration we feel for the achievements of the men famous in Church history allow us to forget that their work has been really Christian and beneficial just in proportion as they made themselves secondary and subordinate to Christ. We do not sufficiently appreciate the service of any Christian, unless as we trace in it the sustaining and guiding power of Christ himself. In the Church one generation goeth and another cometh, but Christ abideth for ever.—Y.

Numbers 18:8-20

THE PROVISION FOR THE PRIESTS

Already, upon different occasions, something has been said as to parts of certain offerings being reserved for Aaron and his sons (Exodus 29:28, Exodus 29:31-33; Le Exodus 2:3, Exodus 2:10; Exodus 6:16-18, Exodus 6:26, Exodus 6:29, &c.), and now in this passage the whole question of how the priests were to be provided for is taken up and answered. It was a fitting occasion, seeing that priestly duties had just been laid down, so exacting and exclusive in their demands. When a man is called away from the ordinary business of life, where he is as it were naturally provided for by the fruits of his industry, it must always be an anxious question as to how he shall be supported. If the priests, along with the holding of their priestly office, had been able to farm or trade there would have been no need to point out a special means of support. But since the priest was to be wholly given to tabernacle service, it was right not only to assure him beforehand of the necessaries of life, but to point out to him something of the way in which they were to be provided.

I. THE SUPPORT OF THE PRIESTS WAS CLOSELY CONNECTED WITH THE FAITHFUL DISCHARGE OF THEIR OFFICE. They were provided for in the very act of carrying out their priestly duties. Forsaking the appointed service of God at his altar, they found themselves forsaken of his providence. He might have continued for them some miraculous provision by manna or otherwise, if such a course had seemed fitting; but he rather arranged it that in faithful waiting upon the altar their support should come from day to day. Faithfulness was required of them, first of all, in keeping the people instructed and reminded as to all the offerings required. An omitted offering might mean an impoverished priest. Faithfulness also was required in being continually at the altar. It was the appointed place for the people to give and for the priest to receive. There was no call for him to go on mendicant expeditions round the land, or lean upon the suggestions of his own prudence in order to make sure of daily bread. When he went to the altar it was as to a table provided by rite Lord himself. So when God manifestly calls any of us to special service, our very faithfulness in the service will bring a sufficient supply for all our need. If we leave the path of duty we leave the path of Providence.

II. THIS MODE OF PROVISION TENDED TO BIND PRIESTS AND PEOPLE CLOSER TOGETHER. The priest, while in some respects separated from the people by an impassable harrier, was in others united by an indissoluble bond. Standing before them as an anointed one, with awful and peculiar powers, treading unharmed where the first footstep of a common Israelite would have wrought instant death, he nevertheless appeared at the same time dependent for his bodily sustenance on the regular offerings of the people. Thus the priest was manifested as one of themselves. There was everything in this remarkable mingling of relations to keep the people from presumption and the priest from pride. Their dependence on him was not more manifest than his dependence on them. Thus, also, we observe in many and touching ways how dependent our Saviour was on those whom he came to save. He threw himself, as no one ever before or since, on the hospitality of the world, manifesting that there were real needs of his humanity which he looked even to sinful men to supply. And may we not well suppose that even in his glory Jesus is not only a giver to men, but a receiver from them? May it not be that by our fidelity and diligence in respect of the living sacrifice we are ministering a very real satisfaction to the glorified Jesus?

III. As this provision required faithfulness in the discharge of duty, so also it required FAITH IN GOD. If he had said he would provide manna or some direct miraculous gift, such an intimation would have been easier to receive than the one actually made. That which has to come to us indirectly, gives occasion for a greater trial of faith than what has to come directly. The food of these priests was to flow through a circuitous and, to judge by late experience, not very promising channel. Had not these very people, whose offerings were to support the priests, only lately shown their contempt for Aaron and unbelief as to the reality of his office? How then should they be the channels of God's providence? Thus the opportunity for faith comes in. Looking towards man, all is unlikely; looking through man to God, all appears certain and regular. God will make his own channels, in places we think unlikely, for those who put their trust in him. He knew that, stubborn and unsympathetic as the people now were, yet the day would come when their offerings might be looked for with a reasonable confidence. We are very poor judges by ourselves of what is likely or unlikely. The Divine arrangements, perplexing as they may appear on the surface, have in all cases a basis of knowledge and power which it is our wisdom humbly and gratefully to accept.

IV. This provision EVIDENTLY GUARDED AGAINST ANYTHING LIKE EXTORTION. The people themselves knew exactly how the priests were to be provided for. And this was no small matter, seeing that in course of time the holy priesthood became in the hands of arrogant and grasping men an occasion for priestcraft. Priests learned only too soon the power of an ipse dixit over superstitious and timid minds. But God does not allow the authority of an ipse dixit to any but himself. The priest was bound by a written and definite commandment which lay open to the perception of every one who had to do with him. All these offerings, of which he had a certain part, were to be presented in any ease. They were not presented in order that he might be provided for, but, being presented, they gave occasion sufficiently to provide for him. The people were to feel that he was being supported by a reasonable service.

V. THERE WAS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR PEOPLE TO GIVE IN A RIGHT SPIRIT. If any one had a grudging and fault-finding disposition there was certainly opportunity for him to exercise it. He could say, not without plausibility in the ears of like-minded men, that the priests were managing things very cleverly, so as to be provided for at the public expense. Misrepresentation is not a very difficult thing to achieve if certain considerations, and these alone, are brought into view. God's appointments for the support of the priesthood: were a standing trial of the people's views with respect to it. Misrepresentations cannot be escaped, but woe to those who, without troubling fully and honestly to understand the thing of which they speak, are the authors of misrepresentations. The priesthood itself was a Divine, a necessary, and a beneficial institution, and every devout Israelite would count it a joy to support it, even though particular holders of the office might be very unworthy men. We must honour and support every Divine appointment, and that all the more if the persons appointed show themselves insensible to the duties laid upon them.—Y.

Numbers 18:19

A COVENANT OF SALT

God has defined the provisions for the priesthood, and indicated in what certainty and sufficiency they would come. He also indicates the permanency of the supply. The things given would be given to Aaron and to his sons and daughters with him by a statute for ever. Everything was done to make and keep the priesthood separate, and prevent those who had it from being tempted into the ordinary business of life, by fear lest they should lack sufficient support. And still further to emphasize the solemnity of the pledge, God adds this peculiar and suggestive expression: "It is a covenant of salt for ever." Dr. Thomson, in ‘The Land and the Book,' tells us that it is a habit still common among the Bedawin, and probably coming from the remotest times, for host and guest to eat together. This is said to be bread and salt between them, and constitutes a pledge of protection, support, and fidelity even to death. Thus we may understand God saying to Aaron, and through him to the long succession of priests, "There is bread and salt between us." But we must also go back and consider Le Numbers 2:13. All the meat offerings presented to God were to be seasoned with salt. When presented, a part was burnt,—as it were, eaten by God himself,—and the remainder he returns to the priest for his own use. Thus there are mutual pledges of fidelity. God is the guest of the priest, and the priest in turn the guest of God. In this way God lifted a social custom to a holy use. We cannot but notice in the second chapter of Leviticus that while some things are mentioned as constituents of the meat offering, viz; oil and frankincense, and others as excluded, viz; leaven and honey, a special emphasis is laid on the presence of salt. A special significance was to be indicated by that presence, and it agrees with this that when Ezra was going up from Babylon, furnished by Artaxerxes with all he might require for sacrifice, the salt is given without prescribing how much (Numbers 7:22). We must, however, look further back than social customs even, to find the reason why salt was present in this covenant. Social customs, could they be traced back, rise, some of them at least, out of religious ordinances. Why was salt chosen as the symbol? It is something to notice that salt gives flavour to that which is insipid. God's gifts may easily pall and become worthless if his presence is not associated with them; with the sense of that presence they cannot but be grateful. But the chief service of salt is to preserve that which is dead from decay. Salt will not bring back life, but it will hinder putrefaction. Under the old covenant God did not give life, though he was preparing to give it; but at the same time he did much to preserve the world, dead in trespasses and sins, from corpse decay, while he made ready in the fullness of time to bring back the dead to life. Thus the covenant with men through types and shadows was emphatically a covenant of salt. And the same may he said of the new covenant through the great reality in Christ Jesus. There is an element of salt in this covenant also. "Ye are the salt of the earth," said Christ to his disciples in the great and honourable burden of service which he laid on them. Indeed, what we call the old and the new covenant are really but shapes of that great covenant between God and man made in the very constitution of things. God, creating man in his own image, and planting within him certain powers and aspirations, is thereby recording the Divine articles in the covenant; and man also, by the manifestations of his nature, by his recognition of conscience, even by his idolatries and superstitions, and gropings after God, testifies to his part in the covenant. And in this covenant all true disciples are as the salt, the solemn, continuous pledge from God to the world that he does not look on it as beyond recovery. Be it the part of all disciples then to keep the savour of the salt that is in them. "Walk in wisdom towards them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be array with grace, seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:5, Colossians 4:6). It rests with us to honour God's covenant of salt and make it more and more efficacious.—Y.

 


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Numbers 18:4". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tpc/numbers-18.html. 1897.

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