The Israelites have been at Sinai for 11 months. The Lord’s army has been counted; the Levites who will serve in the Tabernacle have been counted too, and their duties have been assigned to them; each tribe has brought offerings for the dedication of the Tabernacle; the Passover has been celebrated once again; the Lord’s glory-cloud — signifying his presence with them — has moved from Sinai to cover the Tabernacle; silver trumpets have been made to signal to the people when it’s time to leave camp; and in today’s passage we discover that the time to leave has come. It’s time for the people to leave Sinai and to begin the journey to the Promised Land.
After all, that’s why the Lord rescued them from Egypt. He didn’t rescue them so that they would live forever at Sinai. He didn’t rescue them so that they would dwell forever in the wilderness. No, he rescued them with the intention of bringing them to the Promised Land, a land like the Garden of Eden, flowing with milk and honey, and where God would be with them. And so, you would have God’s people in the place he had prepared for them, enjoying his presence with them. It was to be a foretaste of the life to come, when all of God’s people — a multitude of people made from every nation, tribe, people and language — will live in the place God has prepared for us — which is the new heavens and earth — where we will enjoy God’s presence with us for ever and for ever.
And so, it’s time for the Israelites to leave Sinai and begin the journey. And as we do on important occasions, they were careful to record the date in verse 11 where it tells us they began their journey on the twentieth day of the second month of the second year after leaving Egypt. On that day, the Lord’s glory-cloud lifted from the Tabernacle and this was the sign that it was time to break camp and leave. And verse 12 is a kind of summary of the first part of their journey when they travelled from Sinai to the Desert of Paran. And in verse 13 we’re told that they set off at the Lord’s command through Moses. So, just as we read last time, the Lord was the one who determined when they were to break camp and leave and when they were to stop and make camp. The Lord led the way; and they followed him.
Verses 15 to 28
In verses 15 to 28 Moses records for us the order in which they marched. And the order in which they marched matched the order in which they arranged their tents when they made camp. So, when they camped, the tribes of Judah, Issachar and Zebulun camped on the east side. And those three tribes went first when they marched, with Judah in first place. When they camped, the tribes of Reuben, Simeon and Gad camped on the south side. And those three tribes were in second place when they marched. When they camped, the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Benjamin camped on the west side. And those three tribes were in third place when they marched. And when they camped, the tribes of Dan and Asher and Naphtali camped on the north side. And those three tribes were in fourth place when they marched.
However, in verse 17 we read that the Gershonites and the Merarites — who were two of the Levite clans — were positioned between the first group of three tribes and the second group of three tribes. The Gershonites were called by God to carry the curtains and coverings of the Tabernacle. The Merarites were called by God to carry the frames and bars of the Tabernacle. And you might recall that they were given oxen and carts to help them with these tasks.
And then verse 21 tells us that the Kohathites — who were the third Levite clan — were positioned between the second group of three tribes and the third group of three tribes. So, there were six tribes in front of them; and six tribes behind them. In other words, they were positioned right at the middle of the people. And God had called them to carry the holy things: the furniture and all the equipment which was kept in the Holy Place. So, they carried, for instance, the table of the bread of presence and the lamp-stand. And you might recall they were to carry these things on their backs. They weren’t allowed to use oxen and carts, but had to carry these things themselves, because these objects were holy.
Verses 33 to 36
What about the ark of the covenant? If look down to verse 33, you’ll see that the ark of the covenant was positioned at the front of the people. The ark of the covenant was God’s throne; and just as the glory-cloud signified God’s presence, so the ark of the covenant signified God’s presence with them. He was their great King and he was leading them on their way. In fact, he was leading them as their conquering king to victory over their enemies, After all, the Israelite men formed an army which was going to do battle with their enemies on the way and with their enemies in the land of Canaan. And so, according to verse 35, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say:
Rise up, O Lord. May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.
And when the ark came to rest, Moses would say:
Return, O Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel.
The ark went before them to signify that God was their conquering King who would lead them to victory over their enemies.
And, of course, many years later Christ our Saviour came riding into Jerusalem as our conquering King. But whereas many of the Jews at that time thought he was going to lead them in a war against the Romans, he came in fact to deliver us from Satan and sin and death. And since he withstood all of Satan’s temptations and died to pay for our sins and was raised victorious from the grave, then all who trust in him are delivered from Satan’s tyranny, and are pardoned for their sins, and receive the hope of the resurrection of their bodies and everlasting life in the presence of God. The Lord God went before the Israelites as their conquering King; and the Lord Jesus Christ is our conquering King and in him we have the victory over Satan and sin and death.
Furthermore, the Israelites were a pilgrim people, because the Lord was leading them to the Promised Land; and on the way they faced many dangers and trials and temptations. But the Lord was with them to help them. And we too are a pilgrim people, because the Lord Jesus Christ is leading us all the way to the Promised Land of Eternal Life in his Presence. He has set before us the hope of entering the new heavens and the new earth, where we will be with him for ever and ever in glory. That’s our final destination, but we’re not there yet. And on the way, we face dangers and trials and temptations. But we can count on the Lord to help us to overcome every trial and to remain on the narrow path that leads to everlasting life.
We’re a pilgrim people; and just as the Israelites had to follow the Lord’s lead, so we’re to follow him and to walk in his ways which he has revealed to us in his word.
And then, notice as well that the Israelites were a holy people, set apart for the Lord, and carrying in their midst, the holy things that belonged in the Tabernacle. And we too are a holy people, because the Lord has set up apart for himself to be a kingdom of priests, called to serve the Lord and to offer up to him a sacrifice of praise; and to offer ourselves as living sacrifices to glorify and honour him.
Verses 29 to 32
But before we finish, we still need to consider verses 29 to 32 where we read about this man, Hobab, who was the son of Moses’s father-in-law and therefore Moses’s brother-in-law. Moses invited him to come along with them; and he said that they will treat him well. He said to Hobab that the Lord had promised goods things to Israel. So, even though Hobab was a foreigner, he was invited to join them.
But Hobab said no and that he wanted to return to his own land and to his own people. Instead of joining the Israelites who were on the way to an earthly paradise, he wanted to return to his old country and his old life. Well, later, when the Israelites reached Jericho, there was another foreigner — Rahab who helped the spies. And she was happy to join the Israelites because of her faith in the one, true and living God. But Hobab was unwilling to join the Israelites. Nevertheless, Moses pleaded with him and told him how useful he would be to them, because he would know where they should camp. He was familiar with the land and would be their eyes for them and could advise them.
The commentators point out that there are indications in the book of Judges that Hobab went with them. We read in Judges 1:16 that the descendants of Moses’s father-in-law were with them in the Promised Land; and Judges 4:11 mentions the descendants of Hobab. So, it seems he went with them. And many of the commentators say that it made sense to bring Hobab, because although the Lord was leading them, it was good to have this man’s knowledge and expertise to draw on too when it came to finding food and water, for instance.
However, another commentator argues that it was wrong for Moses to seek Hobab’s help, because the people were to rely on the Lord and on him alone to lead them and to provide for them in the wilderness. Asking for this man’s help was a failure to trust in the Lord. And so, this conversation was a sign of what would happen later as the people made their way to the Promised Land.
You see, on the way, the people doubted God’s faithfulness and they began to complain and to rebel. Later Moses himself disobeyed the Lord’s clear commandment. And because of their unbelief and rebellion, virtually everyone in that generation who left Egypt died in the wilderness without reaching the Promised Land; and only their children were allowed to enter it. And so, perhaps this conversation with Hobab was a sign of what would soon happen and how the people would turn from the Lord.
And, of course, we too are sinners and we’re liable to trust in ourselves instead of in the Lord; instead of obeying the word of the Lord, we think we know better; and instead of walking in his ways, we can so easily go astray. And so, every day we’re to confess our sins before the Lord and ask for his forgiveness; and every day we’re to trust in the Lord and lean not on our own understanding, but we’re to look to him and his word for the guidance we need as we make our way to the new heavens and earth.