I was recently at a meeting in Church House; and the convener of the Parish Bounds Panel was reporting on their work. And he brought with him maps and maps and maps, each one showing a section of the island of Ireland, with lines drawn on them to show the boundaries of the different parishes surrounding our churches. Many of these boundaries are being reviewed because of amalgamations and church plants. And so, this Panel is trying to determine how the boundaries should be redrawn.
The chapter before us this evening reminding me of that meeting, because in this chapter the Lord was announcing to his people what the boundary of the Promised Land would be. But instead of providing us with a map, the Lord described where the boundaries would fall. And while we can identify some of these places today, the location of many of them, if not most of them, is unknown to us.
The chapter can be divided into two main parts. In verses 1 to 12 we have the boundaries of the land. And verses 13 to 29 tell us how the land was to be assigned.
Verses 1 to 12
And so we read in verses 1 and 2 that the Lord instructed Moses to speak to the Israelites about the boundaries of the land.
‘When you come into the land’ the Lord said. Forty years before this, the Lord has rescued the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt; and he would have let them enter the land also immediately if it were not for their unbelief and sinful rebellion; because instead of believing his promises, they doubted the Lord and they doubted his ability to take the land from the Canaanites and to give it to them. Instead of trusting the Lord and going in to take the land, they doubted the Lord and talked about returning to Egypt. And so, because of their unbelief and sinful rebellion, the Lord swore that that generation of people would die in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. And that’s what happened in the intervening years. All of them — apart from Joshua and Caleb who trusted the Lord — fell in the desert.
And, of course, this happened as a warning to people in every generation that we must not have a sinful, unbelieving heart, because whoever has a sinful, unbelieving heart will never enter the Promised Land of Eternal Life or the eternal rest which God has prepared for all who believe his word. We must believe the Lord who has promised eternal life to all who trust in his Son, otherwise we will perish in our sins. But whoever believes receives the hope of everlasting life in the presence of the Lord in the Promised Land to come.
And note, of course, that the Lord refers to the Promised Land as an inheritance. An inheritance is a gift. It’s not something we earn or which we pay for. It’s something which is given to us. And so, the land of Canaan was an inheritance — a gift — which the Lord was giving to his people. And God promises to give us an eternal inheritance, which is eternal life in his presence. He promises to give it to his people; and we receive it by faith.
In the following verses, the Lord describes first the southern boundary of the land; then the western boundary of the land; then the northern boundary of the land; and finally the eastern boundary of the land. As I’ve already said, the location of many of the places mentioned here is unknown to us. But it doesn’t really matter, because the inheritance which the Lord promises to us is not life in the land of Canaan, but eternal life in the new heaven and earth. The Promised Land of Canaan was only a foretaste of the land to come, which we’ll receive whenever the Lord Jesus Christ comes again. Remember what we read in the book of Hebrews about Abraham? It says:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went.
The Lord called him to leave his father’s house and to go to the Promised Land of Canaan. And Abraham believed the Lord and went. However, then we read that he knew he was an alien and a stranger on earth; and that he was longing for a better country, a heavenly one. Abraham looked beyond the land of Canaan to the Promised Land of Eternal Life in the new heaven and earth. And that’s to be our hope and expectation too: that the day is coming when we will enter a better land than Canaan, a heavenly one, to be with the Lord forever. It’s a land which God promises to give to us; and it’s a land which we receive by faith in his Son, who suffered for our sins on the cross in order to bring us to God.
Verses 13 to 29
Verses 13 to 29 tell us how the land was to be assigned. According to verse 13, it was to be assigned to the different tribes by lot. Since the outcome of the lot was in the hands of the Lord, this meant that the Lord was the one who decided which tribe would possess which part of the Promised Land. So, the land a tribe received was not determined by the people themselves, but by the Lord. And so, each tribe could say that they were assigned their land by the Lord; and it was his gift to them.
Furthermore, the land was to be divided among only nine and a half tribes, because the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Manasseh were assigned land on the eastern side of the Jordan River.
And then we read in verse 17 that Eleazar the priest and Joshua were to oversee the assignment of the land. And one leader from every tribe was to help them. And the names of each of the leaders is listed for us in verses 19 to 28. The final verse makes clear that each of these leaders was appointed by the Lord. Since we’ve already read that the land was assigned by lot to the tribes, it’s not entirely clear what these men were appointed to do; but presumably it was some kind of administrative role to ensure the land was allotted in an orderly way among all the different clans within each tribe.
This section recalls what we read right at the beginning of the book of Numbers. In Numbers 1, the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron the priest to take a census of the people. And then the Lord appointed one leader from each of the tribes to help them. Well, Joshua has now taken the place as the ruler of God’s people. Eleazar has taken the place of Aaron as high priest. And new leaders have been appointed to replace the old leaders who died in the wilderness. In Numbers 1, the people had just left the land of Egypt. In Numbers 34, the people are just about to enter the land of Canaan.
It’s worthy noting that the two main leaders are Eleazar the priest and Joshua who was as a kind of king, commanding the army and ruling the people. These two leaders are the ones who led the people into the Promised Land. And priests and kings in the Old Testament symbolise the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Great High Priest and our Great King. As our Great High Priest, he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice to reconcile us to God forever. And as our Great King he sets us free from Satan’s tyranny and calls us and keeps us in his own kingdom of grace. And when Christ our Great High Priest and King comes again, he will bring us into our Promised Land where we will live forever and ever.
And so, this chapter speaks to us of the three Ps which we’ve come across before as we’ve studied the books of Genesis and Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers. The three Ps are people and place and presence. Here we read how God’s people were about to enter the place where they would enjoy the presence of God in their midst. But what we read in these books of the Bible is only a foretaste of what God has in store for all his believing people, because the day is coming when Christ our Priest and King will come again; and when he comes, all of God’s people will dwell in the place he has prepared for us, which is the new heaven and earth; and there we’ll enjoy the presence of the Lord forever.
The unclean and the unholy will not be able to enter that land, but only those who have been washed and made clean by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. But through faith in him, we are cleansed from all our guilt and we’re made holy; and so, we’ll be able to enter the Promised Land to come and enjoy perfect peace and rest forever.