In Numbers 3 we read about the Levites and how the Lord had set them apart from the rest of the Israelites to assist the priests in the tabernacle. And in chapter 3 the Lord commanded Moses to take a census of all Levite males who were aged one month or more. We also read about how they were to camp around the tabernacle, because one of their roles was to guard the tabernacle and prevent any unauthorised person from going too near the tabernacle, lest the wrath of the Lord should break out against them. And we also read about the work that was assigned to them by the Lord, because not only were they were guard the tabernacle, but they were also responsible for erecting the tabernacle when it was time to camp; and taking it down when it was time to break camp and move on.
In Numbers chapter 4, the Lord commanded Moses to take another census of the Levites. But this time, he was only to count those Levite males who were between the age of 30 and 50. Whereas the census in chapter 3 was about counting all of them, the census in chapter 4 was about counting all those who were able to do the work of the Levites; and since the work of the Levites involved heavy lifting, only the strongest and fittest men were counted. And, of course, in this chapter, their work is described in more detail.
The chapter can be divided neatly into the following sections: verses 1 to 20 are about the Kohathites; verses 21 to 28 are about the Gershonites; verses 29 to 33 are about the Mararites; and then in verses 34 to 49 the number of each of the three families is listed again.
Verses 1 to 20
Verses 1 to 20 are about the Kohathites; that is the sons of Kohath, who was one of Levi’s three sons. The Lord commanded Moses and Aaron to count them. And you’ll see from verses 4 that they were responsible for transporting the most holy things in the tabernacle: things like the ark of the covenant and the table of presence and the lampstand; all the objects which were kept in the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle. Whenever it was time to break camp and move on, they were responsible for transporting these things; it was a very important role, because these were very important objects.
However, although they were responsible for transporting these objects, they were not actually allowed to touch or even to see the most holy items. Before they could transport them, the priests had to cover them. So, look at verse 5 where we’re told that Aaron and his sons were to go in and take down the curtain which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place and they were to use the curtain to cover the ark of the covenant. Then they were to cover it again with hides of sea cows — no one is sure how to translate the Hebrew word, but it was a covering made from some kind of animal skin — and then they were to cover it again with blue cloth.
Next there was the table of presence. Aaron and his sons were to spread a blue cloth over it; then they were to place the plates and dishes and bowls and jars and the bread of presence on it and cover it with a scarlet cloth and cover it again with the animal skins.
They were also to cover the lampstand and all the accessories needed for it and wrap them all up in the animal skin; and they were to cover the gold incense altar and the bronze altar which was for the animal sacrifices. Only then — according to verse 15; and only after Aaron and his sons had covered all the holy objects — could the sons of Kohath come and start to transport them to the next camp. None of them must touch the holy things, or they will die.
In verses 17 to 20 the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron to ensure that none of the sons of Kohath are cut off or killed. And the way to ensure they’re not cut off, is by making sure none of them touch or even look at the holy things, even for a moment. If any of them were to glance at one of these holy things, they would die.
According to verse 16, Aaron’s son Eleazar was to take charge of certain specific items; and he was given overall responsibility for the tabernacle and all its furnishings.
Verses 21 to 28
In verses 21 to 28 we read about the sons of Gershon. Again, the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron to count them. And there were given responsibility for carrying the curtains and coverings. The tabernacle itself was made up of different layers of coverings; and then there were all the curtains which were used to surround the outer court. So, the sons of Gershon were responsible for these and for all the ropes and other related equipment. And they were to do their work under the direct supervision of Ithamar, one of Aaron’s sons.
Verses 29 to 33
In verses 29 to 33 we read about the sons of Merari. Once again, the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron to count them. And they were given responsibility for the frame: so crossbars, posts, bases, tent pegs, ropes and so on. They too were to work under the direct supervision of Ithamar; and each of them was given a specific object to carry.
Verses 34 to 49
That’s the work of the Levites. The sons of Kohath were responsible for transporting the most holy things. The sons of Gershon were responsible for packing and carrying the curtains and coverings. The sons of Merari were responsible for packing and carrying the frame.
In verses 34 to 49 the result of the census is recorded. There were 2,750 Kohathite men aged between 30 and 50; there were 2,630 Gershonite men aged between 30 and 50; and there were 3,200 Merarite men aged between 30 and 50. The total number was therefore 8,580.
Last week we learned that the Levites were to guard the tabernacle to prevent any unauthorised person from coming too near, because those who approached the sanctuary would be put to death. And the Levites were to camp between the tabernacle and the Israelites in order to prevent anyone from coming too close. But in today’s chapter, we learn that the Levites themselves had to be careful, because if any of them touched the most holy things, or even if they glanced at them, they would die. Even though the Lord set them apart to serve him in the tabernacle, they too had to be careful; and none of the sons of Kohath could touch the holy things or look at them. Everything had to be covered so that none of them would die.
The Lord is holy and the objects that belong in the tabernacle were also holy. And sure enough, in 2 Samuel 6, we read the story of how King David wanted to bring the ark of the covenant from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem. And they set the ark on a cart to transport it to the city. David and the people were celebrating, because the Lord had given them victory over their enemies. It was a day of celebration. But on the way, one of the oxen pulling the cart stumbled; and a man called Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark, presumably to steady it. But we read how the Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; and the Lord struck him down and he died beside the ark of the Lord. The warning which the Lord gave to Moses and Aaron about the Levites was not an idle threat, because here’s a story about someone who touched the ark and who died because of it.
The Lord is holy. And he’s still holy. In our church’s Shorter Catechism we’re taught that the Lord is infinite and eternal and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. So, he’s infinitely and eternally and unchangeably holy. We mustn’t read Numbers 4 and think that things are different now and that God is not the same as he was then. That’s what some people think and they say that the God of the Old Testament was one thing; and the God of the New Testament is different. The God of the Old Testament was frightening and full of wrath; whereas the God of the New Testament is gracious and full of love. But we can’t say that, because the Lord does not change; he’s the same, yesterday, today, and forever; he was holy in the days of Moses and he’s still holy today.
And so we see what Christ has accomplished for us, because whereas the book of Numbers tells us that the people could not come near to God, the book of Revelation tells us that we will come near. In the book of Numbers even the Levites who served the Lord had to be careful, lest God’s wrath broke out against them; but in the book of Revelation all the saints are pictured as gathering around the throne of God. In John’s visions of heaven, wrath does not break out against God’s people; quite the contrary, because we’re told that the Lord will wipe the tears from our eyes.
What we read in Numbers and what we read about in Revelation are very different. But the Lord has not changed; he’s eternally and unchangeably holy; and in heaven the angels are still saying:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.
The Lord God Almighty has not changed; but the saints in heaven have been changed, because in Revelation 7 we read how they’re wearing white robes, because they’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb. The Lamb died in our place to satisfy God’s justice and to wash away the guilt of our sins and to create peace between us. And whoever believes in Christ the Lamb is pardoned by God; and they’re filled with his Spirit who sanctifies us and makes us holy; and when we die, we’ll be made perfect in righteousness; we’ll be made perfectly holy.
And as we heard on Sunday evening, when Christ comes again, we’ll receive a new, spiritual and heavenly body, a body which is perfectly suited for life in the presence of God in the world to come. And so, because of Christ we’re pardoned; and because of Christ we’ll be made perfect; and because of Christ we’ll rise to live with God forever.
If Christ had not come, none of us could ever come before God and live. But since Christ came to save us, we can look forward to coming before the Lord. And according to the very last chapter of the Bible, God’s servants will see his face. The Levites weren’t allowed to glance at the holy objects. But in the new heaven and earth, when we’re brought before the Lord Almighty, we’ll be able to see him. God does not change; but we will be changed. And we will be changed because of Christ our Saviour who died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring us to God.
And, of course, in the days of Moses, only the priests and the Levites could serve in the tabernacle. In fact, only Levites males who were a certain age could serve in the tabernacle. But in the new heavens and earth, in the new Jerusalem, all his servants will serve him; not just a few, but all of them will serve him in his presence forever.