We began to study the book of Numbers last week when I said that Numbers follows on from the books of Exodus and Leviticus, because you’ll see from Numbers 1:1 that Moses and the Israelites are still at Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19 we read about their arrival at Sinai in the third month after leaving Egypt. When they got there, God entered into a covenant with them; he gave them the Ten Commandments; and he instructed them how to make the Tabernacle and everything in it. And at the end of Exodus, we read how they constructed the Tabernacle and the Lord’s glory-cloud moved from the top of Sinai and entered the Tabernacle to indicate that it was now God’s dwelling-place.
And then, in the book of Leviticus, the Lord gave his people instructions about what sacrifices to offer and what festivals to celebrate and what kinds of thing would make them unclean and what they needed to do to become clean again. God gave them all those instructions at Mount Sinai. And so, when Numbers opens, they’re still at Mount Sinai; it’s now the second month of the second year since they left Egypt; so, they’ve been at Sinai for about a year. And now it’s almost time for them to leave Sinai and to make their way to the Promised Land.
And so, you might remember from last week that I said that while we call this book ‘the Book of Numbers’, it has also been called ‘In the wilderness’ which is perhaps a better title, because although the book of Numbers contains lots of numbers, it’s really about what happened in the wilderness while the Israelites made their way to the Promised Land. Most of the book of Leviticus contained instructions about what they were to do. Most of the book of Numbers contains history or a narrative of their time in the wilderness.
And you might also recall from last week that I said that a major division occurs in the book in chapter 26. You see, chapter 1 records how the Lord instructed them to take a census of all the people who left Egypt. But, then, in chapter 26 the Lord instructed them to take another census. Why another census? Well, because of their unbelief, the generation who left Egypt perished in the wilderness and they did not enter the Promised Land. The second census was of their children, the new generation of Israelites who believed the Lord’s promises and who entered the Promised Land. The first generation fell in the desert, because of their unbelief and rebellion; and the privilege of entering the Promised Land was given to their children. And therefore it’s a warning to us today that when we hear God’s word and all his promises concerning the Promised Land of Eternal Life, we’re not to despise his promises as that first generation did, and we’re not to turn back from the hope of heaven as they did, when they longed to return to Egypt, but we’re to believe his promises and trust in the Saviour who will lead us to our eternal home in the new heaven and earth.
That was last week. Let’s turn now to look at chapter 1 in a little more detail. As I’ve said, verse 1 tells us that they’re still at Sinai; they’ve been there for about a year. But before they continued with their journey, the Lord instructed Moses to conduct a census of the people. You’ll see from verse 3 that Moses and Aaron were to count all the men in Israel who were twenty years old and older who were able to serve in the army. So, there was a military purpose to this census; they had to record the number of fighting men. And that was important, of course, because they would face many enemies on the way; and when they arrived at the Promised Land, they would find that it was already occupied by other nations; and they would have to fight against them in order to remove these other nations from the land. So, because of the enemies they would face, they needed to have an army ready in order to deal with their enemies.
It would be an enormous task to count all the men; and so, in verse 4, we read how one man from each tribe was appointed to help them. And so, in verses 5 to 15 we have the names of the men who were appointed to help with the census. And in verse 16 we’re told that these men were in fact the leaders of the tribes at that time and the heads of the clans.
According to verse 1, the Lord spoke to Moses about the census on the first day of the second month; and according to verse 18, Moses and Aaron got to work straightaway, because on the very same day, they called all the people together to begin the count. Moses obeyed the Lord immediately. As we’ll see, the people were very different, because whereas Moses was quick to obey the Lord, they were slow to obey him and often disobeyed his commands and they doubted his promises. Moses was a faithful and obedient servant of the Lord; but the people were often rebellious.
Although they listed all the names, the list of names is not recorded. All we have are the total number for each tribe; and you’ll see the total for each tribe in verses 20 to 43. And then, to save us doing the maths, the total of all the tribes is given in verse 46. And it’s a massive number: 603,550. Now, remember that’s the number of men aged 20 and over. So, the total number of Israelites would be much, much more if you assume that most of the men were married and that they had several children. It was a massive number. It’s such a big number that many modern scholars doubt that it’s accurate and they suggest that the numbers are really symbolic; or that when it says ‘thousand’, it doesn’t really mean ‘thousand’; or the numbers recorded here are not from that time, but from a later time in Israelite history.
They offer all kinds of suggestions, because they cannot believe that these numbers are accurate. And yet, as one other commentator states, the whole point of a census is to be as accurate as possible; and there really is no good reason to doubt that what is recorded here is true. Furthermore, one of the points of the census is to make clear how the Lord was faithful to his promises. Back in Genesis 15 he promised Abraham that his descendants would be like the stars in the sky, too many to number. Abraham’s descendants only numbered 70 when they travelled to Egypt in the days of Joseph. Then, when the book of Exodus opened, the Pharaoh was concerned because they had become so numerous; and even though he tried to reduce their number, the people increased and became even more numerous until here in Numbers 1 there was over half a million men over the age of 20 as well as all their wives and children.
The Lord was faithful to his promises. The Lord is always faithful to his promises; and yet in those days the people kept doubting his word. And it’s the same today: the Lord remains faithful; he will do all that he has promised; but people today despise his promises concerning salvation and eternal life; and they doubt what he has said about the coming judgment and about heaven and hell. People in every generation doubt his word; and so, we need be careful when we hear his word not to harden our hearts as they did, but to believe his promises.
Notice though that the Levites were not included in the census. They weren’t included, because they were not to fight, but were set aside by the Lord to serve in the Tabernacle. Look at verse 50: they were to take charge of the Tabernacle. Verse 51: when it was time to move on, they were to take the Tabernacle down and set it up when they stopped. Anyone else who goes near the Tabernacle shall be put to death. Furthermore, they were to set up their own tents around the Tabernacle so that wrath will not fall on the people. The NIV says at the end of verse 53 that they were to take care of the Tabernacle. But really it means they were to guard the Tabernacle and prevent any unauthorised person or any unclean person from going near it. That was their responsibility, given to them by the Lord. The other men were called to fight against their enemies; but the Levities were called to guard the Lord’s dwelling-place.
What can we learn from this chapter? I’ve already mentioned that this chapter is a reminder of how the Lord was keeping his promise to Abraham, because the Lord had done what he said and he had increased their number so that they became very numerous. They had indeed become like the stars in the sky and like the sand on the seashore: too many to count. And yet, you’ll also remember that the Lord’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled in two ways. It was fulfilled in an earthly, ordinary and provisional way in the nation of Israel which became a great nation.
But it will be fulfilled in a spiritual, greater and eternal way in the church of Jesus Christ, because everyone who believes the gospel is one of Abraham’s spiritual descendants, sharing his faith in God and his promises. And in Revelation 7, the Apostle John described the vision he saw of the church in glory. And do you remember? He saw a great multitude that no one could count. But whereas in the days of Moses, those who were counted were only Israelite men, the people who will make up the multitude in heaven will be men and women and boys and girls from every nation, tribe and people and language. All who believe are added to the church, which the Lord is building on the earth; and in the end the church of Jesus Christ will be a multitude which no one can count.
Notice again the military purpose behind the census. Moses was instructed to count all those who could serve in the army. They needed an army, because they would face many dangers on the way to the Promised Land; and once they arrived at the Promised Land, they needed to fight against the other nations in order to take over the land; and, of course, in days to come, they needed to defend themselves against their enemies who tried to invade the land: enemies like the Midianites in the days of Gideon and the Philistines in the days of David. They needed an army and the men needed to be ready to fight.
In the book of Ephesians Paul teaches us to put on the full armour of God, because God’s people today are still at war and we must still fight. But we’re not to fight against flesh and blood; our battle today is not with other people, because the Lord calls us to love even our enemies. No, we’re to fight against the Devil and we must be alert and we must stand firm against all his wicked schemes, by which he tries to mislead us and to deceive us and to lead us astray. He comes against us like a roaring lion to try to upset and frighten the Lord’s sheep and to scatter them. He comes at us in different ways; and we must be ready to stand up to him and to stand firm against him. And we must fight with all our might against every temptation; and against our own sinful flesh which wants us to do evil; and we must resist every desire to conform to the ways of the world.
Theologians talk about the church militant, which is the church on earth, fighting constantly against sin and Satan and our own sinful flesh and the ways of the world. So long as we continue on the earth, so long as we remain a pilgrim people, we’re engaged in spiritual warfare. And only when we enter the promised rest of heaven will we be able to give up the fight and take off the full armour of God.
Invitation to Come
Finally today, the Levites were appointed to guard the Tabernacle and to prevent the people from getting too near, because the Lord is a holy God and his wrath was likely to fall on any who tried to approach him.
And yet, when we get to the end of the Bible, what do we find? We find that great multitude who are gathered around his throne in his presence. And we find the invitation:
In the book of Numbers, the Levites were appointed to keep the people away. In the book of Revelation, we’re invited to come into the presence of the Lord. In Numbers, they have to stay away; in Revelation, they’re invited to come near. Well, between the book of Numbers and the book of Revelation there’s the cross of Christ. On the cross, the Lord Jesus gave up his life as a ransom to deliver us from our sin and misery. He paid the price for our sin in order to reconcile us to God. By his blood we are washed and cleansed from all our guilt. And so, united with Christ through faith, we may come into God’s presence to give thanks to him in prayer and praise; and one day we will come into his presence in glory and join that great multitude in heaven, which no one can count, made up of men and women and boys and girls from every nation and tribe and people and language to worship the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb who was slain for us.
And so, whenever we come to church to worship the Lord, whenever we come here to pray to him, whenever we bow before him at home, we should remember and give thanks for our Saviour, because without him we would be shut out of God’s presence for ever, but through faith in him, we’re pardoned and accepted for ever.