Lectures Introductory to the Pentateuch.
Numbers 1- Numbers 11:1-10.
It is impossible to look at this book ever so cursorily without feeling the difference of the atmosphere from that of Leviticus. And this is so much the more striking because it cannot be fairly doubted by a believer that they were both the production of the same inspired author. Nothing therefore illustrates more clearly the way and measure in which the object of God gives the tone to the book in which He is communicating His mind to His people; for although there is quite enough to show the same human hand that He employed, the fulness of divine wisdom is equally manifest, as also the special forms which it thought fit to adopt for the purpose of enforcing the truth on our careless minds.
Now the specific object of Numbers is to set out the journeyings of Israel through the wilderness, and this typically as usual in scripture. It is no longer access to God. This we have seen in Leviticus, where the tabernacle stood in the foreground, out of which Jehovah caused His communications to be given to Moses, as well as to Aaron, or even to the people through Moses. In the book of Numbers the Spirit of God has the desert before Him, rather than the sanctuary. We shall find of course the sanctuary, but the question here is not one of drawing near to God as far as this could be then, but of the walk of the people of God on the earth. I say the earth, because it does not always set before us the earth as it now is — a wilderness, but the earth even as it shall be when the Lord Jesus takes the kingdom. We shall find the importance of this remark before we have done with the book of Numbers. Still it is everywhere the earth as the scene through which the redeemed of the Lord are passing.
Hence the first thing brought before us is that we are now to look on and learn the varied trials whereby Israel were about to be proved, where occasional foes met them, where there were always dangers and difficulties, where the people might and as we know did manifest their lack of dependence on God, even to the point of rebellious and flagrant and fatal sin against Him.
It was needful in God’s wisdom that the census of the children of Israel should be taken. The primary object that is presented to us in the early chapters is a reckoning of the males that were fit for war; but we shall find that the numbering goes beyond this, and that there are other considerations and objects than for war and warlike purposes. In short, whatever might be the particular aim in various parts of the book, God impresses upon us this — the care and the interest that He takes in everyone that belongs to Him. It is a very simple truth, but certainly full of comfort to the soul; and this, it will be observed, for the earth.
We can all understand the sweetness of being numbered for heaven, and to that the heart of most people generally turns; but even those who have the greatest comfort in looking at the counsels of God securing them for eternity are apt to forget the present interest which the Lord takes in all our movements, ways, conflicts, and trials. This is the first thing with which the book opens.
After this numbering of the people attention is drawn to the exception of the tribe of Levi. Thus it is said, “Thou shalt not number the tribe of Levi neither take the sum of them among the children of Israel: but thou shalt appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony, and over all the vessels thereof, and over all things that belong to it: they shall bear the tabernacle and all the vessels thereof; and they shall minister unto it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle.” The two things are true; and the comfort of both (which at first sight might seem to be so opposed as to be incompatible with each other) the Lord would surely give us to taste. In the one case the census relates to those whom God has put in the place of trial and provocation (not yet, no doubt, the fullest form of conflict, which is reserved for the book of Joshua). Nevertheless conflicts there are, with trial of patience always, in the wilderness for the people of God. But then there is another truth which we need also to apprehend, which has no less consolation for our souls: we are not only God’s own people, every one of us counted up by Himself as those on whom He reckons, whatever may be the march, with whomsoever we may have to fight in passing through the wilderness; but we have to do with serving Him, and, above all, in reference to the sanctuary. In this point of view numbering as of a host would be out of season. The object is to stamp on service an unearthly character; yet undoubtedly it is while we are going through the earth. At the same time the exclusion from this census in the case of Levi was just as important as His interest in reckoning Israel up one by one in the midst of trials. For the Levites taken quite apart are thus viewed as out of all this reckoning and simply exempted for the service of God, without need of any such method of impressing God’s care on them.
Both truths were intended to be brought before us as having distinct and combined meaning in the Christian. Accordingly the very same persons who in one aspect are typified by the numbered tribes of Israel in another are Levites not numbered as yet because they belong to God simply and exclusively. This then is the double aspect. It would not be easy to adduce an instance which shows us more the importance of a right handling of the types, because the natural mind would be continually prone to set the two things in opposition, and to conclude that, as the Levites were contrasted with the other tribes of Israel, so what either represents must occupy each a wholly different position now. As this does not follow à priori, so the reverse is true in fact; and the types indicate different relations of the same antitypical persons. The truth is, when we think of a Christian, we have to remember the words of the Spirit of God in the New Testament: “All things are yours.” It does not matter whether it be the numbering of Israel or the absence of numbering of the Levites, both are true of the Christian — not, of course, in the same aspect, but in distinct relationships equally true.
In the second chapter is laid down the arrangement of the camp; and here we have another important principle brought before us. The tabernacle has a central place: the tribes are all ranged in reference to it. “Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house.” And then we find, “On the east side toward the rising of the sun shall they of the standard of the camp of Judah pitch their armies: and Nahshon the son of Aminadab shall be captain of the children of Judah.” God insists always on His own order. “And his host, and those that were numbered of them, were threescore and fourteen thousand and six hundred. And those that do pitch next unto him shall be the tribe of Issachar: and Nethaneel the son of Zuar shall be captain of the children of Issachar. And his host, and those that were numbered thereof, were fifty and four thousand and four hundred. Then the tribe of Zebulun: and Eliab, the son of Elon shall be captain of the children of Zebulun.” Again we find that Judah comes before us. “On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben,” and again of Simeon. After all this we are told, “The tabernacle of the congregation shall set forward with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camp: as they encamp, so shall they set forward, every man in his place by their standards” (verse 17). Then follow on the west Ephraim’s standard, and on the north Dan’s.
Thus the tabernacle is surrounded by the Levites for the purpose of asserting their special and exclusive absorption in the service of God, instead of being left for purposes of war, or any object on the earth other than God’s own sanctuary. They hold the central place, with six on one side and six on the other. Such was the order of the march. Indeed the same arrangement appears when they encamp. We shall find however a subsequent modification of this; but I do not speak more of it until it comes in its own place. Then we are told as a summary that “These are those which were numbered of the children of Israel by the house of their fathers. All those that were numbered of the camps throughout their hosts were six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty. But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel, as Jehovah commanded Moses. And the children of Israel did according to all that Jehovah commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward every one after their families according to the house of their fathers.”
In the third chapter we come to more particulars of that which has a still nearer interest to us — not now the general order of the host of Israel, but more especially what concerns the service of the Levites This specially connects itself with our walk here below. Priesthood is just as remarkable in the book of Leviticus as Levite service is in the book of Numbers. In that respect Leviticus is by no means a happy name for the book. The truth is that much the greater part of the detail as to the Levites is found in Numbers, and not in Leviticus. We must remember that the name “Leviticus” is not given by divine inspiration: it is merely a name taken from the Greek version; in short it is a human name. I do not hesitate therefore to make the remark. The Hebrew mode of reference to these books was the mere citation of the first word in each book. In the book of Numbers then, where we have the walk on earth set forth, service finds its capital seat. In the book which develops access to God priesthood is as prominent as here Leviteship. A remark applies as to priesthood exactly similar to what we found true of Leviteship; namely, that the Christian, who in one point of view is of Israel and in another a Levite, is no less a priest. Only priesthood sets forth the drawing near to God Himself in the heavenly sanctuary — no longer the figure, but the true — the antitype; whereas Levitical service has to do with the service of the sanctuary whilst the people of God are passing through the earth. It is clear from this that the priestly functions of the believer have a very much higher character than his Levitical service, if we would express ourselves in the language of types. In the one case we have to do with God Himself; we draw near in the sense of what Christ is to Him as well as to us. In the other we have that which is a holy duty; nevertheless it is a duty which has to do with man and the earth in our passage through this world. It is of this latter that we are about to hear more particulars.
The third chapter accordingly brings before us the names of the sons of Aaron, who had the highest place among the Levites — “Nadab the first-born, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar.” “These are the names of the sons of Aaron, the priests which were anointed, whom he consecrated to minister in the priest’s office.” Then the death of the two former, Nadab and Abihu, is mentioned, Eleazar and Ithamar remaining to minister in the sight of Aaron their father.
Next follows the object for which this is introduced. “Jehovah spake with Moses, saying, Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him.” It is clear that gospel service is not the point; and the reason is manifest. Service in the gospel is not merely in but to the world. Here it is service in the world, but by no means the making known to the world the grace of God. The time was not come for this. It is characteristic of Christianity, and could not be set forth fully until the great work of redemption was done. Hence we do not find, except in a mere vague and general principle, anything that could properly set forth the service of the gospel; but there is a vast deal of other service which has and ought to be rendered while we are passing through the earth. This is represented by the different families of the tribe of Levi.
But the first and chief point to lay hold of in the type is the connection of the service with the High Priest — with Christ Himself. Separate ministry in any form, divorce the service of the saints from Christ, Himself in the presence of God, and it is falsified and degraded. Even were this not complete, the precious spring of comfort is weakened. Thus the all-important point is what the Spirit of God first of all brings before us; that, although priesthood and ministry are in themselves essentially distinct, we must always bear in mind that ministry is a gift of God in the closest connection with Him who is the type of the great High Priest. It is for His honour, and for the accomplishment of what is connected with Him. What has to be done on the earth can only be rightly done in subjection to Him, and depends on His place as High Priest. The false principle which has ruined service here below is that men have naturally connected it with the church, instead of with Christ I do not hesitate to say that this is always fatal, though not in the sense that there may not be good done, as men say, by those that minister. Neither would one deny refreshment to souls. Also we must particularly bear in mind the remark already made, that proper gospel ministry is not contemplated here.
But when we think not merely of man, of souls getting help, etc., — when we think of the glory of God, the severing it from Christ, the One to whom it really belongs and to whom it is given of God, and the putting it in subjection to the church, completely ruin all testimony to His will and glory here below. Consequently service becomes either a selfish thing, turned perhaps into a mere worldly profession, or a matter of corporate sectarian vainglory. It allows of the love of a great following, or the desire after power and influence — all of them abominable forms of flesh or world to which it has been perverted by the wiles of the devil In any case, to say the least, ministry deprived of its relation to Christ is stripped of its own proper dignity, as it ceases to subserve His glory.
When cut off from Him and connected with an earthly stock, it is taken out of that which alone secures its true, holy and heavenly character. It becomes more or less dependent on the world by ceasing to be immediately linked with Christ Himself, the One to whom God has given it. Even if it be placed under the church, instead of kept in the hands of Christ, it invariably opens a door for pleasing self or pleasing others; and thus for worldly motives or selfishness in every possible form. Hence we see the all-importance of the truth as here typified: “And thou shalt give the Levites unto Aaron and to his sons: they are wholly given to him out of the children of Israel And thou shalt appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall wait on their priest’s office: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.”
But there is a further truth from the 12th verse: “And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn that openeth the matrix among the children of Israel: therefore the Levites shall be mine; because all the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast: mine shall they be: I am Jehovah.” That is, we find them in a very special manner taken by Jehovah as the formal substitute for the firstborn of Israel who were spared when Egypt was visited by the destroying angel. They were redeemed by blood, and counted emphatically to belong to Jehovah. In lieu of Israel’s firstborn He accepted the Levites “They shall be mine.” They are thus made the standing witness of the firstborn due to Jehovah from man as well as beast. The grace of God had exempted those to whom they answered in the time of judgment. Consequently the Levites, being thus identified with mercy — the great distinguishing mercy which rescued Israel from the doom of Egypt, were so much the better fitted to do the service of the sanctuary. Who can presume to undertake the service of God without knowing that God has accepted him on the ground of redemption? Salvation precedes ministry, if we listen to God and dread the solemn warning of the Lord and His apostle. (Matt. 7:22; 1 Cor. 9:27)
But there is something far more precise than this. “Number the children of Levi after the house of their fathers, by their families: every male from a month old and upward shalt thou number them. And Moses numbered them according to the word of Jehovah, as he was commanded.” Now we have their special numbering for the place assigned to each family. Here they are numbered (apart from Israel, but still numbered) from infants of days, designated to service long before it could begin. (Compare Gal. 1:15) Strength is given before service is claimed; but from their earliest days they are reckoned apart according to the grace and intentions of God. There were three principal houses — Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. They with their sons have each a line of service given into their hands in Numbers 4, where they are afresh numbered from thirty years old and upward. This also is of great moment. There is nothing practically more important than that each servant of God should know the work He has given him to do; and that when known he should stick to it. Be assured also that it is of no small importance never to interfere with another’s service. The Lord is sovereign in this. He divides according to His own will. This on the one hand we are bound to respect; while on the other there is nothing more lovely than mutual subjection according to the grace and in the fear of God. This very principle ought to make us jealous of trenching on that which we ourselves could not properly enter into. I hold it to be a certain truth, that every saint of God has a work to do entrusted by the Lord, which nobody else can do so well. The great business is, that we should find what it is, and that we should cherish unqualified confidence in God in carrying it out as now redeemed to Him. After all, this must be a secret between Him and ourselves, however we may be helped perhaps by the wisdom of others to find it out; for there are many ways in which we arrive at the conviction of the work God has given us to do.
Real Christian service cannot be settled in the simple external fashion in which it was appointed to Israel. Like all else in Christianity, it depends on faith, not on family, or birth-connection, as was true of Israel, a people after the flesh. But what was true of them in a fleshly sort is no less true of us in a spiritual way. Now we have to bear this in mind; and I believe that you will find the great value therefore first of all of settling between your souls and the Lord what the work is in which you prove His power with you, and His blessing on you. Surely now is the appointed time, the time of labour and of service, while you are passing through the world. Thanks be to God, we have a still better place, even the sanctuary where all is founded on the mighty work of redemption, whereby we rest in peace with God and in the communion of His love, as we draw near in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. In virtue of this we have our true worship while here below; but with this, as we have seen, Leviticus has more to do than Numbers.
But besides the privilege of worshippers, we have our work, and it is of the utmost possible moment for the glory of God that we should be found simple-hearted, devoted, respecting each other, not hindering but helping on in brotherly love. Grace no doubt teaches us what is due one to another, while earnestly and sedulously seeking that we should each discharge that in which God is with us. This seems very plain in the expressed directions which the Spirit of God lays down as to the sons of Levi. And we shall see how careful He is in His own sovereign choice; for man’s will has nothing to do with the matter. It was no question at all of picking out those who might seem best for carrying the boards and the curtains, or the vessels of the sanctuary. God arranged it all, taking it completely out of man’s hands: He chose suited men Himself. Where is anything happy unless in the simple carrying out of the will of God? Nothing else is so sweet. Our Lord Jesus has shown us this. It was His meat to do the will of His Father, and it should be ours.
These Levites then show us the special service framed, and the instruments arranged, by the will of our God: we find also certain positive directions laid down for all. “These are the families of the Levites according to the house of their fathers. Of Gershon was the family of the Libnites, and the family of the Shimites: these are the families of the Gershonites. Those that were numbered of them, according to the number of all the males, from a month old and upward, even those that were numbered of them were seven thousand and five hundred. The families of the Gershonites shall pitch behind the tabernacle westward. And the chief of the house of the father of the Gershonites shall be Eliasaph the-son of Lael. And the charge of the sons of Gershon in the tabernacle of the congregation shall be the tabernacle (the outward frame) and the tent, the covering thereof, and the hanging for the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and the hangings of the court, and the curtain for the door of the court, which is by the tabernacle, and by the altar round about, and the cords of it for all the service thereof.”
Then we hear of Kohath. “And of Kohath was the family of the Amramites, and the family of the Izeharites, and the family of the Hebronites, and the family of the Uzzielites: these are the families of the Kohathites.” Their number is given; and these were to be on the side of the tabernacle southward. All was laid down with the greatest possible care. God would avoid confusion in the service of the tabernacle, and also room for human will. He would make it to be the humblest thing on earth — a matter of simple obedience. Their charge we gather was to be a most honourable service, even “the ark, and the table, and the candlestick, and the altars, and the vessels of the sanctuary wherewith they minister, and the hanging, and all the service thereof. And Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest shall be chief over the chief of the Levites, and have the oversight of them that keep the charge of the sanctuary.”
Then come the Merarites, under whose guardianship were to be the boards of the tabernacle (ver. 36). “And under the custody and charge of the sons of Merari shall be the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and the sockets thereof, and all the vessels thereof, and all that serveth thereto.” Thus it is plain all was fairly portioned according to God’s mind.
What has been here pointed out it is of all possible consequence to apply practically. You will find that in the service of the children of God — in those, for instance, that minister in the word, without confining it to them — these distinctions turn up constantly. There are those whose blessed place it is to dwell on Christ Himself, who delight in dwelling on His grace, who have the deepest admiration for His person, His divine glory, His perfect devotedness to the Father. I need not say there is no ministry possessed of a higher character than this: what indeed has one so high? On the other hand there are those who are more particularly occupied with that which displays the Lord to men. It is clear that the curtains, the tabernacle, all the outward part, do not so much set forth Christ before God as before man. The former sort of ministry contributes largely to a spirit of worship. The latter is adapted more to the wants of man. The difference may be better understood by this, that in the former it is a question more of the value of Christ, in the latter of His ways; in the one more what He is and does for God than what He appears before the eyes of man below, the means of a meeting between God and man, and consequently of a gracious supply for man’s necessities.
It is evident that those who drove in their wagons the tabernacle, with its tent and coverings, had the Gershonite service, as compared with those who carried the precious vessels of the sanctuary. And again there was somewhat between the two — namely, what maintained the curtain. This therefore did not seem to represent so external a work as the Gershonite service; on the other hand, it does not suppose such intimate communion with Christ and His offices as belonged to the Kohathites. All this may serve to show that what is set forth in the service of these different families of Levites has an obvious bearing on different forms and shades and characters of ministry in the word here below.
But the same thing is also more widely true; for we must not limit ministry to the word, although this comparatively has the highest character. But there is also ministry in prayer, in watchful love and care for others, in lowly interest in all that pertains to the Lord and those that are His. These things must not be forgotten. There is many a soul that never appears as a workman in man’s eye, but who, I am persuaded, carries on a most important function for the good of those that do appear, bearing up and strengthening before God those who have to do more with the din and brunt and fag of the war that must be carried on as long as the enemy is in force here below.
All these things then we may well seek to understand. Above all, when we do understand, let us not content ourselves with this; for what is the value of truth, if we are not walking in it to the glory of the Lord? Is it not rather for such the deepest condemnation? Therefore there are none for whom one may justly dread so much as for ourselves — for you and me, if careless. The more simply God has led us outside the mere reign of dreary tradition, with all its darkening and blinding effects, the more He has brought us in presence of His own word, and given us to bow to the free action of the Holy Ghost, that we may enjoy the grace and truth of Christ — the greater the danger, shame, and pain, when we either act unworthily in our own persons, or take lightly in others that which dishonours the Lord Jesus. Such indifference, if it exist along with a better knowledge of the word of God, makes all the more sad the contrast with that precious expression of His own grace. Nevertheless be sure that there is not only the same danger of slipping as for others, but when those who have the better knowledge do trip, they are apt to fall lower with less shame than such as know less with more conscience. When such unseemliness appears, many not understanding this are scandalised. They wonder how it can be that those possessed of better knowledge of God’s word can so grievously turn aside. The truth is that the cause is painfully simple. Not a few go on decently in the religious world through love of reputation, and a desire to stand well one with another. With little power of godliness, they have the highest value for position and their interests. Can any one doubt who knows the general state of things that this exercises immense power of a low kind? But it is not so where the Lord has distinctly led them out into a platform practically Christian. There nothing is allowed of God to pass in the long run but the power of the Spirit; and the danger is like Peter’s, when he was no longer in the ship (where he was safe enough comparatively), but went out to Jesus walking on the waters. Then it is Christ who sustains, one way or another, or sinking is inevitable. Undoubtedly it was the place of true honour, but faith alone could avail itself of the divine power; for that reason the lack of it exposed him the more because of his ardour, though the Saviour was immediately in sight to extricate from peril and sorrow. Nothing but dependence on Christ can rightly keep the Christian — I do not mean from drowning so much as from dishonouring the Lord.
In order to this the sovereignty of God in service must be felt, learned, applied, and walked in. And the same feeling which maintains it as a matter of faithfulness to God will also respect it in others. Be assured that these things always go together. This must suffice for the distinctive service of the Levites in contrast, so to speak, with the common character of the priest’s work and position. In drawing near to God all differences disappear. Who and what are we in His presence? The one person that fills the scene is the Lord. And this is more manifestly true and known to us now, because the veil is rent. Hence therefore the immediateness of the presence of God is incomparably more felt in Christianity shall even the types of Judaism could possibly express.
The chapter closes with fresh calls from Jehovah to Moses: first, to number the firstborn males of Israel from a month old and upward, and to take the Levites for them; secondly, as the number of the firstborn exceeded that of the Levites by two hundred and seventy-three, to take redemption-money for this residue (five shekels apiece) to be given to Aaron and to his sons.1
In Numbers 4 we come to another important point — the carrying of the vessels of the sanctuary through the wilderness; for now what the Kohathites had to do is taken up particularly. It was the highest form; it was what brought the service closest to Christ. Outwardly it did not look so well, as we shall find afterwards. It does not at all follow that the service which makes the greatest show or noise among men has the most honourable character in the eyes of God. This is important. We often mistake as to what really has the weightiest place. This is the one sure test of value; it is always Christ. Whatever brings one nearest to Christ, and brings out Christ most, is always the best. This seems to be the case typically with the sons of Kohath in their service. But if we look closer, you will find special ways in which their service is brought before us.
Thus they were told first of all, “When the camp setteth forward, Aaron shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the covering veil, and cover the ark of testimony with it: and shall put thereon the covering of badgers’ skins, and shall spread over it a cloth wholly of blue, and shall put in the staves thereof.” This was, of all the vessels of the sanctuary, the fullest and the highest representation of God Himself, as displayed in Christ. The ark, as we know, was for the holiest of all. It was that which set forth Christ, — and Christ not as He met the need of man in the world, but as He is seen in the presence of God — Christ in the highest display of His glory and of divine righteousness on high. In this case the veil was that which covered it. It is not merely therefore the type of the Son of God as such, but as having taken humanity into union with His own person. I trust that my reader believes and knows that the Son of God ‘was from all eternity; but what the ark covered with the veil represented is the Son after He took manhood into union with Himself.
Besides this, there is the covering of badgers’ (or tachash)2 skins — the figure, it would seem, of that which absolutely shut out all that was offensive. Such repellent power could only be represented thus, not in the intrinsic way in which it belongs to Christ. The form in which the figure expresses this power of moral guard is by a skin capable of warding off what was disagreeable. Badger’s skin therefore was fitly chosen in every case when it was a question of representing power that sets aside evil and forbids its smallest contact with the object so covered. Then over this type of His separation from sinners was a cloth wholly of blue, because, whatever might have been in our Lord Jesus Christ as just said, whatever might be the power that rejected evil, there was another aspect of Him pre-eminently presented to the believer: He was “the heavenly” One. (1 Cor. 15) And it is remarkable, too, that several expressions which are used in John 3 combine these very thoughts. “The Son of man,” it is said there rather than the Christ. Thus we find Him shown fully as man — the title in which He speaks of Himself here and habitually; but we find also that He is “the Son of Man which is in heaven” This never could be severed from Him when He was here below; it seems to be the allusion meant by the covering of blue. Even John the Baptist was earthly, and spoke of the earth, as did all others; Jesus alone came from above, and was above all He was divine, the Word and Son, whatever He became, and coming from heaven He was above all.
Further, the table of showbread had a cloth of blue, and all the various appurtenances were so covered. Besides this it is said, “And they shall spread upon them a cloth of scarlet,3 and cover the same with a covering of badgers’ skins, and shall put in the staves thereof.” Whereas, on the contrary, with the candlestick there was simply a cloth of blue which covered all, and then the covering of badgers’ skins, but no scarlet cloth. What are we taught by this? Wherein lies the difference? Why is it that the Spirit of God directed that in the case of the table of showbread a covering of scarlet should be between the blue and the badgers’ skins? And why not in the candlestick? The reason, I conceive, is that scarlet is the well-known sign of His glory, not so much as Son of Man, but as the true Messiah — as the one who takes the kingdom of His father David after the flesh. I conceive therefore that this is probably corroborated by the fact of its connection with the table of showbread. At that table were the loaves, which clearly bring before us the twelve tribes of Israel. When the Lord Jesus restores the kingdom to Israel, it is not the covering even of purple — I shall show this by and by, — but rather the covering of scarlet. The mistake of the Jews when our Lord came here below was that they only looked for His glory as the Christ. Our Lord Jesus was refused as such; but when it was manifest that unbelief rejected Him, then, as we all know, He brings in this further glory as the result of suffering unto death. His death and unbounded glory throughout all the creation go together. (Comp. Ps. 8 with Ps. 2)
Hence therefore the evidence is plain, and God showed all along, that there never would be the limitation of His glory in connection with the twelve tribes of Israel represented by these twelve loaves, as the Son; He comes of man in all the fulness of power and glory. It would not be merely as of the Son of David, but the infinitely larger glory of the Son of man. But He will not therefore lose His royal rights over Israel as His special people. With this, it appears to me, the scarlet or crimson covering is connected. I shall show presently how the purple comes in; but for this we must wait till it occurs in its place.
In the case of the candlestick of light there is altogether a different thing. Nothing else but blue appears. There is neither scarlet nor purple; nor was there, you will observe, the covering veil. Why is this? Because here we have brought into close juxtaposition the light of divine testimony, which does not refer to the tribes of Israel, but is specially connected with the heavenly calling. Now it is precisely when Israel disappears that the power of the Spirit of God is given, which is the real means of manifesting this heavenly light. Consequently all reduces itself to two ideas: one is the heavenly link, and the other is the power that rejects all impurity. The church of God, as we know, or Christian body, is especially connected with that testimony. In the case of the twelve tribes there will be, when the due time comes for them, a connection through Christ with heaven, the power of holiness; but their hope is Christ in the glory of the kingdom, which He will take as the risen Son of David. This we have already seen in the foregoing type.
Further, it is directed that the golden altar should be covered with blue and badgers’ skins; that is to say, in near connection with the light comes the altar of intercession, the altar of priestly grace. How beautifully this applies to a time when not only there is the power of the Spirit of God in giving a testimony for God — a heavenly testimony and a holy one, but besides also the power of grace that goes forth in Christ’s intercession! We know how both ought to characterize the Christian. These two objects are similar in kind, were found perfectly in Christ, and should be in us. Now is the time to shine as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life; now to pray always with prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching “hereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints. Our God would give us fellowship with Christ in both. As is the heavenly, such are they also who are heavenly. The earthly people will have light arising for them by and by; but it will be for earthly government, and the nation and people that will not serve Zion must perish.
But when we come down to the brazen altar in verse 13, which is the next instrument, it is said, “They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon.” It is plain that the purple must have a close affinity for the crimson or scarlet: nevertheless there is distinction as well as resemblance. The distinction seems this — that while both colours agree in bringing in dignity, what seems to belong to the purple is glory in general; and I need not tell you that Christ’s royal dignity is connected not so much with His being the Son of man as with the lineage of David. I take it therefore that here we find what belongs to the Lord as suffering on the earth. Here He suffered, and here He is to reign. No doubt He is and could not be other than the means of meeting man where he is, in all his wants, and weakness, and sin, and distance: the blessed Lord never can abdicate that. This is glory pertaining to Him for the earth. At the same time He is and could not be other than the Son of David as viewed here below; as it was said, He was “born King of the Jews.” Looking at Him as connected with the earth, this is in part what belonged to Him — to reign where He suffered. The proper colour to express this dignity is the covering of the brazen altar. He is more than king, but still He is King, and thus connected with all the earth.
The difference between the brass and the gold in various vessels seems to be this, that, while both show divine righteousness, the one rather looks at man responsible on the earth, the other at God in all His grace who is approached in heaven. Such is the difference. They are both true, both alone found in Christ: nevertheless the one means God’s righteousness to whom we draw near; the other means God’s righteousness that displays what He is in dealing with man as a responsible creature here below. God can afford to forgive him, but it is simply forgiveness. This takes account, we see, of his responsibility, which concludes by his failure, though divine mercy steps in with plenary pardon on faith. But it is another thing to draw near to God as He is revealed by Christ. This is found in the ark or in the other vessels of the sanctuary, if we did not even look at the highest form.
This was then what the Kohathites had to carry. Accordingly we find the completing of the numbering of the Levites — not merely of the children of Israel. But we have now the same sons of Gershon brought distinctly before us, not mixed up with the warlike houses of Israel; but when their service has been distinctly defined, they too are connected with the work, and summed up together.
It will be observed that here again as in Exodus I scout the notion as erroneous, that the most holy place with its furniture sets forth Christ in contra-distinction to the holy place as directly referring only to the works and services of His people, — the things to be believed concerning God, and the things to be done by His believing people, — which leaves the court as a place where they might personally appear before God, and hold communion with Him as locally present among them. How poor this is, how it leaves out the true antitypical place into which the believer is now brought through the rent veil to hold communion with Him in the holiest (Heb. 10), does not call for more words. The Cocceian school was wild and vague; but their prime idea is incomparably better than this exclusion of Christ from His rightful pre-eminence and all-comprehensive functions in the mind of the Spirit. Besides, it does not seem consistent to admit, as these same typologists do, that the tabernacle as a whole sets forth the manifestation of God in Him, and then to allot it in this strange way, giving the innermost shrine no doubt to the blessed Lord, then the middle or holy place to His people, and lastly the outer court to the place of meeting or fellowship for the Lord and them. Having already however explained, in speaking of Exodus, what I believe to be the true bearing of the sanctuary vessels, there is no need of repeating it here. I would only point out the different order in this place, as well as the omission of some: both due to the fact that we are here in presence of God’s display of His life in Christ (and consequently in the Christian) on the earth, whether in the days of His flesh or as anticipating His appearing in the kingdom. The golden altar follows the golden table and chandelier, as it again is followed by the altar of burnt-offering. The laver is not mentioned anywhere. It is the difference of design which governs and accounts for all — a striking testimony to inspiration.
In Numbers 5 we enter on another view, on which I must be brief. Defilement, or suspected defilement, is here dealt with; but the principle is always according to the character of the book. It is not now priests, but the camp of Jehovah. He deigns to be with the people, and is there in the very midst of their encampment. They must carefully avoid what was unsuitable for the presence of God. He was dwelling there: it was not merely man’s drawing near to Him. This, no doubt, did concern the Israelites, and we find it in the preceding book; but He was dwelling with them, and accordingly this becomes the standard of judgment. So we find the various forms of uncleanness which would unfit for a camp where God dwells. This is the first thought.
In the next place, supposing persons committed any sin, trespassing against Jehovah, and were guilty, the great point insisted on is confession (but more than this, reparation, if possible, by the guilty party); in every case, however, to God Himself. Undoubtedly Christianity in no way weakens this, but rather strengthens it. The grace of God, which has brought in unlimited forgiveness, would be rather a calamity if it did not enforce confession. Can one conceive a thing more dreadful morally, than a real weakening of the sense of sin in those brought nigh to God? It may seem so where there is only a superficial acquaintance with God Where the truth has been hastily gathered and learned on the surface, it is quite possible to pervert the gospel to an enfeebling of the immutable principles of God, ignoring His detestation of sin, and our own necessary abhorrence of it as born of God. Whatever produces such an effect is the deepest wrong to Him, and the greatest loss to us. This is guarded against here.
But there is another case where there was not a trespass, but a suspicion of evil, and this too in the nearest relationship — the husband about his wife Now Jehovah had his eye on this. He would not have one hardened. What is more dreadful than to be carrying suspicions? We ought to watch against it. Still there may be circumstances that bring a sense of evil, and yet we can hardly give an account of it. We may struggle, fearing that we are wrong as to the person; still, somehow or another, there is the sense of something wrong against Jehovah. What, then, is to be done? In this we see Jehovah making a special provision for it. He ordered that there should be the administration of what is called here “the waters of jealousy:” The wife was to be brought to the priest; everything was to be done in a holy way. It was not human feeling, but connection with God Himself, and a judgment of that which was unsuitable for His presence. “then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before Jehovah. And the priest shall take holy water in au earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: and the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse.” Then the charge is given to the woman, after which he says, “Jehovah make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when Jehovah doth make thy thigh to rot,” and so on. The priest was to write the curses in a book, and blot them out with the bitter water, and cause the woman to drink the water. The effect of this would be that, supposing the woman was innocent, all would go on so much the better in the family. She would have the manifestation of God’s blessing on her.
This I do not doubt to be a type, whether of Israel or of Christendom; but for moral profit individually it is all-important. It may be very painful for us to be suspected, but when we are, let us never resent it in the pride of our hearts. Alas! evil is possible, and it is a good thing to evince by the very patience of whatever may be that which is laid to our charge that we are above it. It is always a sign of weakness at the least, very often of guilt, when there is a restless desire to extenuate and deny; and the fiercer the denial the more certain the guilt as a rule. But there may be weakness which sometimes gives an appearance of wrong where it does not really exist. Where flesh is not thoroughly judged, there will be a tendency to resent the smallest imputation. Now here it is where we have this bringing in of the water of death. What is there which so admirably meets everything as the taking the place of death to all that is here below? It is very evident a dead man does not resent an injury. It is the bringing in the practical power of death into the soul which enables one then to bear it. Whatever it may be, let it take its course — let us humble ourselves to have, as it were, bitter water administered to us; and most assuredly where the heart, instead of refusing or in a fleshly way merely repelling an insinuation out of the pride of our nature, is willing that all should be thoroughly tested in the presence of God, the result is that the Lord espouses the cause of the one causelessly suspected, and makes all to flourish as never before. Whereas, on the other hand, if there is a trifling with God, with His name, with His nature, then indeed bitter is the curse which falls on such a one. Thus we see it was an invaluable thing, and it is as true now in principle as ever it was in outward type. I do not hesitate to say it is true in a deeper and better sense now than it was then; only it needs faith. It needs self-judgment however; nothing less will carry us through. For although there may be the most genuine faith, still if there is not the willingness to be nothing the willingness to take the bitter draught, the waters of separation or waters of jealousy, it is because there is a power of flesh hindering us — a want of faith to take the place of death. Where we are upright, yet submit to it, who can measure the fruitful blessing which results through the grace of God?
In Numbers 6 comes a type of positive blessing. It is not defilement, but special severance to the Lord. This is what Israel ought to have been, but alas! was not; for Israel defiled themselves for the dead; and this is precisely the place which the godly remnant in Israel was willing to take, as we find in Acts 2. They owned themselves defiled to death; and for what? As it is said here, “When either a man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto Jehovah: he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is made of the vine tree, from the kernels even to the husks.” It is separation not only from what was defiling, but from what was the best in nature. Not that nature is condemned; which is never right in a Christian. We are bound to maintain the honour of God in the creature to the last. It is always deplorable where man weakens what is due to God in anything that He has made; yet there is no reason why we should deny the power that lifts us above it.
But this last is what the Nazarite shadowed. It is not an assault on God, or anything He has made. Creation as God made it was worthy of His hand; and natural affection is ever sweet. The Lord looked on a man that enquired of Him, though without an atom of faith in Himself; but his character was lovely, and as such the Lord loved him. This is all right; and we ought to do the same. Depend on it that there is a wrong measure if in this we venture to differ from Christ. Just so the Lord took a child in His arms, put His hands on it, and blessed it. Do you think He had not a special interest in a little child? The disciples were far from His thoughts and feelings. Do you suppose He did not look at what God made, were it but the lilies of the field? Never did the Lord give the least sanction to the pseudo-spirituality some of us have talked as to this. No; from His lips never fell a word of slighting thought and feeling for a single creature. Who admired as He every blade of grass that came from His Father’s hand? Who so delighted in His care of a sparrow? Who so marked and told out to others the interest that tells itself out in numbering the hairs of the head of those who belong to Him? Christ never denies the claims of nature, never weakens the sense of its beauty, fallen as man may be, and the world ruined by him — yes, ruined not by God, but by him who yielded to Satan’s wiles.
Yet that same blessed Saviour in gracious separateness foregoes all enjoyment of what was found here below — severing Himself in special vindication of God from it all. The creature was good. How could it be otherwise, coming from the hands of such a God? He knew better than any the state into which it had fallen, but He did not forget whose wisdom and goodness made it all. At the same time He is separate to Jehovah; He preserved His Nazariteship. Israel understood not, but the godly remnant followed His steps. By the grace of God they took the place of confessing the defilement for the dead. This seems to be the very thing illustrated at Pentecost Those who received the word took the place of repentance. Christ abode separate to God always. The repentant Jews in living faith acknowledged what their hands had done — what they themselves had been — what their fathers as well as themselves and their children. They bowed to God, and owned the ruin and death that had come into the world through sin. This is the only way of deliverance from it. They were set on a new ground of Nazariteship unto God from that very moment. They had begun as the outward people of God, separate from the nations, but their standing had been all spoilt and lost by defilement. The death of the Messiah brought out their defilement to the uttermost; but that very death which was their greatest sin became in grace the sole means by which they could renew their Nazariteship on a ground that could not give way. And there we follow. More than that, the door is left open for the remnant in the latter day. They will be Nazarites too. They will not refuse to own their sinfulness, and look from every other hope to the dead and risen Saviour; and they will close their proper place of separation to God in the joy and liberty of the millennial kingdom, when the Nazarite may drink wine.
But a few words more as to the Nazarite may be acceptable here. It was not merely that there was the refusal of the best of what God gives (for natural joy here below was represented, I suppose, by the wine); but further, “all the days of the vow of his separation there shall no razor come upon his head.” It is plain that this was not the ordinary condition of a man. Long hair did not become him, though it is in character with the woman. Long hair is the sign of subjection to another; subjection is not God’s order for the man, who is meant to be the image and glory of God. But in the Nazarite the rule was altogether special. There was a giving up of man’s natural rights, of the place of dignity which God gave him in nature. Further, there was the refusal to make himself unclean for his father, or mother, or brother, or sister, when they died, “because the consecration of his God was upon his head :” nothing was more imperative than to beware of defilement by death. It has been already referred to. This is only found in the new creation, we having been sinful men, who turned back to God in repentance and faith; and always excepting the Lord Jesus who stood, but stood alone, in His own intrinsic purity.
Nazariteship is only for a time. This is stamped upon it. “All the days of his separation,” it is said, “he is holy unto Jehovah.” And then we find, either, if the Nazarite law were broken, how he had to begin afresh, or, if the days were complete, how it terminated. For this too was carefully noted in offerings of joy, and gladness, and communion. This is what is found here. “And he shall offer his offering unto Jehovah, one he-lamb of the first year without blemish for a burnt-offering, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish for a sin-offering, and one ram without blemish for peace-offerings, and a basket of unleavened bread, cakes of fine flour mingled with oil, and wafers of unleavened bread anointed with oil, and their meat-offering, and their drink-offerings.” All these were to be brought; “and the Nazarite shall shave the head of his separation at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and shall take the hair of the head of his separation, and put it in the fire which is under the sacrifice of the peace-offerings. And the priest shall take the sodden shoulder of a ram, and one unleavened cake out of the basket, and one unleavened wafer, and shall put them upon the hands of the Nazarite, after the hair of his separation is shaven; and the priest shall wave them for a wave-offering before Jehovah;” and so on.
Again, Nazariteship is never supposed to be permanent, but an institution for the wilderness. It comes in by the way on earth, and is peculiar to Numbers.
Thus I apprehend that whatever might be the special separateness either of Israel in responsibility, of the church now, of the Christian by grace, or of Christ Himself, the only One absolutely and perfectly so, — whatever might be even these various applications, they all terminate in joy and glory. To watch in self-renunciation will not always be called for. There is a day coming when the Nazarite drinks wine — a time of gladness and ease; and thanks be to God for the hope of it! Then all will be changed; no longer must we go forward with girt loins because of passing through a world where not only evil is, but the best may be a defiling snare. The day comes when all things in heaven and earth shall be only for Gods glory, all regulated and used according to the mind and heart of Christ. In that day Nazariteship shall be no more; even he drinks wine then. We shall dwell at ease; we shall rest from sorrow and Satan; we shall all be glad in the joy of the Lord. Then too it will not be merely heavenly worship and praise, but the earthly ones shall rejoice for ever and ever.
Am I wrong in taking it that this is the reason why the blessing of the high priest is brought in immediately after? It is in strict connection with the conclusion of the Nazarite’s vow. “Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, Jehovah bless thee, and keep thee: Jehovah make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: Jehovah lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” Such will be really and literally the fact when the Nazarite’s term shall have come in every sense; and it will end in the joy and gladness without bound of the millennial reign.
On Numbers 7 a very few words will suffice. We have here the gifts of love and free-will, of hearty devotedness, which the chiefs of the people offer for the service of the sanctuary. The one point to which attention need now be drawn is an offering, particularly for the service of the Levites; but remarkably enough these offerings did not affect the Kohathites. The Kohathites, whatever others might receive, carry the vessels entrusted to them upon their own shoulders. The sons of Merari and the sons of Gershon are presented with oxen and chariots; the Kohathites receive none. There is no such principle as that of God balancing matters, and keeping men in good temper by giving all the same portion. If it were, there would be an end of practical grace. On the contrary, what puts faith and love to the test is, that God arranges every one of us in a different place according to His wise and sovereign will. There is no such thing as two alike. The consequence is that this, which becomes an awful danger for flesh, is the sweetest exercise of grace where we are looking to the Lord. What gracious man would feel sore with another because he was unlike himself? On the contrary, he would take an honest and hearty joy in that which he saw of Christ in another, which he did not himself possess. Now this is what seems to me is called into exercise by the provision for the carrying out of the service of the Levites. The least of them had the most oxen and the most chariots. At the same time, those who had the highest and the most precious charge of all had to bear the vessels on their shoulders. They had much less noise and appearance among men, but the best place giving rise to the highest exercises of faith. The Lord make us rejoice, not only in what He has given to us, but in what He has withheld from us and entrusted to others!
In Numbers 8 (where again I must be very brief) we have some final words, after the order about lights is announced, in a very particular way, namely, that the priesthood alone keeps up the lights. It is not Levite service, but the link with Christ in the sanctuary in the presence of God on which they depend. This really, though in secret, keeps up the true light of testimony.
In the next place we find another fact. Although the Levites were separate to the priesthood, and were particularly excepted from the numbering of the people as belonging to the services of the sanctuary, none the less were they connected in the most interesting way with every Israelite. In short, at the consecration of the Levites, the Israelites laid their hands on the heads of the Levites. Jehovah had clearly shown before that He was the One to whom the Levites belonged; but it would have been a sad loss indeed, if the people had not felt so much the deeper interest because they were Jehovah’s servants. Thus, we see, Jehovah maintained His own place and appointment and sovereign disposal of the Levites. If we are His people, let us not forget that the people of Israel signified their acquiescence and joy; took their part in it too by thus identifying themselves with the Levites that were then set apart for Jehovah. How happy, when on the one hand we thoroughly recognise the rights of the Lord, and on the other find our own portion so much the better. We find ourselves not impoverished because it is the Lord’s, but so much the richer, because His things are ours.
Then comes in Numbers 9 a special provision in case of any impurity by passing through the wilderness which might hinder the passover to be taken at the right season. It is the resource of grace, and is only found here. It might be acted on, as in fact it was at a later day. The principle of it may be seen in the historical books, but it was a province growing out of the condition by the way. We see Jehovah would not lower His end or His ways. On the one hand the passover must be kept — the remembrance of the death of Christ is necessary everywhere. There is no pathway out of the world without the death of Christ which was kept in Egypt. Nor could they have left Egypt without the passover. They could not have been delivered across the Red Sea without the blood of the Lamb first. The death of Christ is the necessary and only possible foundation for any blessing from God; but besides, when they are in the wilderness, the death of Christ is just as necessary. Where indeed is it not necessary? When we enter Canaan, there we find the passover meets us in the foreground. (Joshua 5) Everywhere the death of Christ is essential — as for God’s glory, so for man’s blessing. On the other hand, supposing they were not in a fit condition through defilement, Jehovah here makes a special provision for it. He would not lower the passover by dispensing with its absolute obligation; but at the same time He would pitifully consider the circumstances of the way which might hinder its practicability.
The end of the chapter brings before us another provision of goodness — the people’s call to unlimited dependence on the Lord’s guidance. This was represented first of all by the cloud, their guide by day, as the pillar of fire was by night. And mark this: no circumstances, no times, no difficulties, lessen the necessity for Jehovah’s guidance. Supposing night comes with its darkness: what then? The guidance of God is only so much the more conspicuous. Can we doubt that the light was rather brighter by night than by day? I speak not of it intrinsically, but in the eyes of man. Whatever may be the trial, the Lord will be with us, if we really look to Him; and the greater the need, so much the more manifest will be His guidance. All we want is that the heart be really simple in dependence on Him. At His command therefore they rest; at His command they journey. If it stopped but for a little while, so did they; if it abode longer, so they rested; but they were ever to be at Jehovah’s commandment. They were privileged to expect His bidding continually. Blessed dependence! May it be ours!
There is but one other topic we may fittingly refer to before coming to a proper halt in this book of journeys. Following the directing cloud, we find the prescribed use of the trumpets (Num. 10:1-10). This clearly is a character of testimony of rather more marked features, more loudly dealing with the people than the simple indication of the cloud or the pillar of fire. There are different ways in which Jehovah signified His will. It might not always be with the same emphasis which the trumpets naturally imply. There were two trumpets of silver, and they were to be blown by the priests, as we are told here. The sons of Aaron had this as their task according to certain distinct principles explained to us.
In the first case of direction the people looked to the manifest sign of God’s presence; in the latter, as just seen, the signal was given by those who had intimacy of communion with God, for this is clearly what was represented by the priests. Now the Lord does guide in various ways. There may be times, and there are things, in which we have no means which suppose such intimacy as could be represented by the priestly trumpets of silver. But Jehovah is always adequate to guide His people, no matter what the means or the circumstances may be. Even were one alone, Jehovah is superior to all difficulties. On the other hand, surely it is wise and well to avail ourselves of what spiritual help we can procure, of available testimony where the case admits of it; above all, of God’s own word to deal with ourselves as well as our difficulties.
So accordingly we find here that on various occasions the trumpets had to sound. The most general use was to assemble Israel together. But the trumpet was not so much a question of the journey; this had to do more particularly with the cloud. But the blowing of the silver trumpets was to assemble the people at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. They were called thus to draw near to the presence of God. Again, supposing the enemy at hand, there was an alarm blown. “When ye blow an alarm, then the camps that lie on the east parts shall go forward. When ye blow an alarm the second time,” then the rest were to move. All is carefully ordered of God. “But when the congregation is to be gathered together, ye shall blow, but ye shall not sound an alarm.” Thus, it is seen, that there were in particular these two cases. The trumpets were blown for gathering to the joy of communion; and there was also the alarm trumpet sounded by God’s own testimony in the presence of the enemy. The erect was to be this: the people would be comforted with the thought that, when the silver trumpets blew an alarm, it was God after all that dwelt in the camp. He who directed heard the sound. Not merely were they reminded that God was there, but that He would act for and in them against all adversaries. The trumpets of the sanctuary blown by the priest called them against the enemy. Might they not boldly say, The Lord is our helper: why fear? what can man do?
Numbers 10:11 - 21.
The previous portion of the Book of Numbers, viewed as a history, has evidently a prefatory character, however important and divinely wise. It is in a great measure preparatory for that which we have now to look at, — the proper journeying of the children of Israel and the instruction which Jehovah gives founded on their path through the wilderness. We have had the numbering of the people, and the ordinances in view of service, special defilement and special devotedness, and other provisions of grace, for heart and conscience, for eye and ear, marked for the journey through the wilderness.
From verse 11 of Numbers 10 the history of the actual journey begins, and a very remarkable fact is at once brought before us, and one that must strike every rational mind, though it ought not so much to surprise the child of God. It may seem somewhat embarrassing that, after having laid down the place of the ark in the centre of the house of Israel (and we can all understand how becoming it was that Jehovah should thus be in the midst of His people whether encamped or marching), now when they go forth there should be a change.4 What drew out the difference was that Moses counted on the kindly help of his father-in-law. Man fails as always: God is invariably true to His word. Nevertheless He does not bind Himself that He shall not go beyond His stipulation. To my own mind this is admirably according to the perfection of God; for it is not a question this of God forgetting what was due to His own name. The ordinance that He had laid down at the beginning shows the affection that He bore to His people, the place that was suitable to His majesty, as having been pleased to come down and be in their midst; but the want of His people, the anxiety of His servants, the failure of what had been reckoned upon to meet the difficulties of the way, at once drew out His grace — I will not say with the cords of a man, but according to that infinite goodness which bends to the necessities of the way, and which feels for every perplexity, great or small, in the hearts of His servants.
It is this which accounts for the difference. Jehovah felt for Moses and felt for the people too. And so the ark, which according to the strict rule was entitled to the place of chiefest honour in the midst of the host that moves forward, now deigns to do the work of a courier, if I may so say, for the people, not only finding the way for them, but acting as an advanced guard to the host. How characteristically this displays the unchanging goodness of God! On the one hand, the ordinance marked what was due to God, on the other was seen in this the gracious consideration which surrendered ritual for love. What real consistency God maintains with Himself. There is always this where grace reigns. The word of God may seem to be wanting for a little, but God never departs in the smallest thing which has the character of an ordinance, but to bring out His character far more perfectly than if all had been rigidly carried out.
The unerring word of God gives us both facts, by the same scribe and in the same book. There was no forgetfulness of His mind, but a tender solicitude about His people — a fine fruit of the same divine grace which all our hearts can well appreciate. Alas! it was very different with the people. If the need of the people drew out greater grace on God’s part, the people are found complaining with bitter ingratitude in the scene just after. Jehovah heard it: His fire burned amongst them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp. The people cried out, but first of all to Moses. And when Moses prayed unto Jehovah, a further scene ensues; for even divine wrath failed to act permanently on their souls. But here we find the result of that mixed multitude which had come out of Egypt with them. Proof was soon given that there is no departure from the mind of God which does not produce a sad harvest in days to follow. The strangers who were mixed up with them fell a-lusting; and the children of Israel also wept again, and said, “Who shall give us flesh to eat?” This was worse than the complaining just before. It was contempt of signal grace. There was utter blindness to the goodness of God. “We remember,” said they, “the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely. But now our soul is dried away: there is nothing at all, beside this manna. And when Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent, the anger of Jehovah was kindled greatly; Moses also was displeased.”
This is followed by the remarkable passage between Jehovah and His servant. Moses himself is downcast through sorrow and distress of circumstances, and confesses that he is not able to bear with His people. Then Jehovah bids him gather to him seventy men of the elders of Israel. Was this really according to the full mind of the Lord? or did the Lord not take Moses at his word, and, as the result, share his singular honour with these elders? Jehovah came down, it is said, in a cloud and spake to him, and took of the Spirit that was upon him and gave it unto the seventy elders; and it came to pass that when the Spirit was upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease. And this gave occasion also to the haste of Joshua, who was somewhat indignant for his master. Neither was this well. It was weakness in Moses that he could not trust Jehovah to care for His people; but it was yet more in Joshua to be over jealous for Moses’ sake. The singular distinction with which God had honoured Moses ought to have raised Joshua above such feeling. “Envies” thou for my sake?” said Moses. “Would God that all Jehovah’s people were prophets, and that Jehovah would put his spirit upon them.”
Blessed anticipation of that which God was going to do another day — the very day in which we are now brought to God, and in which He has gathered us together in one! Do we understand this day of ours? Are our hearts in the secret of it? Are we misled by Joshua’s feeling? or do we share the mind of Moses? Undoubtedly it is an hour of feebleness but withal of blessedness, of infinite peace and joy in the Lord. But we find even more.
Jehovah then listened to the complaint of His people in despising the bread that came down from heaven, and gave them what they sought after. How grave a consideration for our souls! Not only a believing prayer may have its answer from God, but an unbelieving one; and a miserable thing where the heart is not humble, and does not betake itself at once to God. Happy would it have been for Israel had they checked their murmuring, and rebuked their own souls before God! Surely, if the answer had brought them on their knees, and into the dust before God, it would have been better with Israel; but they were practically far from God. They chose to be their own purveyors, and distrusted Him who loved them. We shall soon find that this spread still farther.
And is it not a serious thought, my brethren, that we are reading but the starting-point of the journey, according to this book the very object of which is to show the journeyings of the people of God? Yet, on the one hand, we have seen the incomparable grace of the Lord that has always streamed out to meet the wants of His people, that knows how to exceed, who never gives less, and never will bind Himself not to give more. Such is God. On the other hand, the people were only constant in rebelliousness of heart. It begins too with those who ought to have known better, but too soon fell under the enticements of the strangers who could not appreciate the goodness of their God. Thus, when a descent or fall comes, it is invariably that which is most carnal which carries the day. It was not that the mixed multitude slipped unperceived into the thoughts of Israel, but that Israel sank down to their lowest desires and contempt of what came from Jehovah.
Alas! we find failure everywhere — with the very lawgiver himself. But the fault of his too eager servant recalled him to the grace he felt. He delighted in the goodness of God, even though it might seem to involve somewhat taken away from himself; but he did not think of self but of God. It was right assuredly, when the people greedily fell under the degrading wishes of the mixed multitude of Egypt, that Jehovah should then rise up in His displeasure and smite them at the time when they flattered themselves with His answer to their cry. But His was an answer of grief; it was an answer that brought its own deep penalty along with it — not only leanness into their souls, but an indignant rebuke from God Himself. And it is said, His “wrath was kindled against them ere the flesh was chewed, and Jehovah smote the people with a very great plague.”
But we have not yet done with the painful phases of unbelief. It must be proved everywhere. What is man? “And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses.” And for what? Avowedly because of the type of still richer counsels which their hearts never appreciated — “Because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian woman. And they said, Hath Jehovah indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us? And Jehovah heard it. (Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.)” So much the worse for them. Had Moses defended his own cause, I am persuaded God had not so dealt with Aaron and Miriam. Supposing a person were ever-so much in the right, still the want of faith which fights for self always thwarts the activity of grace.
Here therefore as everywhere, when the thing is simply committed to Him, the Lord takes it up; and nothing is more serious for the adversary. “Jehovah spake suddenly unto Moses;” for now it was an incomparably graver thing than the complaints and murmurs and lustings of the mixed multitude, or even Israel. In proportion to the blessings that grace has given is the grievousness of that which is contrary to God, and therefore does He speak suddenly unto Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam, “(dome out ye three unto the tabernacle of the congregation.” They do His bidding; “And Jehovah came down in the pillar of the cloud, and stood in the door of the tabernacle, and called Aaron and Miriam:” It was in the presence of Moses; but Jehovah had to do with them. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
“And he said, Hear now my words: If there be a prophet among you, I Jehovah will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches: and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold; wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? And the anger of Jehovah was kindled against them; and he departed.” But not without the mark of His hand, not without the judgment that dealt in the way most painful to her who evidently was the chief in this stroke of insubjection. For, “behold, Miriam became leprous, white as snow: and Aaron looked upon Miriam, and, behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, I beseech thee, lay not the sin upon us, wherein we have done foolishly, and wherein we have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother’s womb. And Moses cried unto Jehovah” — how blessed the place of intercession! — “Moses cried unto Jehovah, saying, Heal her now, O God, I beseech thee. And Jehovah said unto Moses, If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed seven days? let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that let her be received in again. And Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days: and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.”
Then comes another incident. It was not merely the working of a spirit of repining and distrust of Jehovah which infected the whole people even to those that were nearest to Moses; but we have grave unbelief as to the land to which they were journeying. Here however it is clear that Jehovah allowed the wish to be carried out: “Send thou men.” We know from elsewhere how this originated — that it was not in faith, but unbelief. Nevertheless Jehovah, as we have seen, lets them prove the principle. That is, not only does He lay down what is according to His own mind, not only may He in gracious care and consideration for His people go beyond it; but, further, He may allow that to be carried out which was not originally of Himself, and yet everywhere secure His own glory. So here spies are sanctioned; and we shall see the result of it. “Moses sent them to spy out the land of Caanan, and said unto them, Get you up this way southward.” And so they did, and came back with one cluster of grapes so large that they bore the branch between two on a staff. They brought also pomegranates and figs. And they returned from searching the land after forty days. And this was the report. “We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan.”
Unbelief itself could not deny the goodness of the land, nor ignore the magnificent specimen they carried between them. But they thought of the men that dwelt there, and not of God. And what had God brought them out of the land of Egypt for? Had He said that there were no children of Anak there? Had He represented the land to be a desert region where the sons of men did not dwell? Never. Jehovah had fully stated who were to be there hundreds of years before. It was a plain forgetfulness of their distinctive glory and blessedness. Is this a strange thing? Let us remember that we too are in the place of our trial. Let us never forget that we have a better salvation, founded on a better redemption, and with better hopes Nor have we a less dangerous wilderness than Israel had to pass through; but for us it is not external power, nor the governmental goodness of Jehovah, but our God and Father, yea, as Jesus knew Him; not only in all the love that rested on Him when here below, but in all the faithfulness to which He binds Himself now to us in virtue of redemption itself.
And how is it that we treat Him — how trust Him? Let us read the book at any rate as the true picture of that which we are apt to be To believe that we are in danger is the very way to be preserved from it. To believe that He is caring for us in love is the surest way to enjoy all through the faithfulness and the strength of His love. It was not so with these spies. Nevertheless there is always a witness for God; there is a remnant even among the spies. “And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”
All their thoughts were — “God is not.” That which is so sadly true of the unbeliever was evidently yielded to by His own people. “They are stronger than we.” And where then was God? They brought up an evil report of the land. This was an advance in evil; and the allowance of evil always brings in a worse. “They brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land through which we have gone to search it is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof, and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants, and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” And what did this matter, if God was for them? Alas! “the congregation lifted up their voice again and cried, and the people wept that night.” But they were tears of unbelief, not of sorrow. “And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses, and against Aaron, and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God that we had died in this wilderness!” They were just as unbelieving about the glory that was before them, the land of Canaan as the type of it, as they were about Egypt which they had left, and about the wilderness through which they were passing.
The consequence was judgment; and no wonder. For they say, “Let us make a captain, and let us return unto Egypt.” This is the sure result. The heart that refuses to go on with God goes back to Egypt in its desires. “Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb,” the two who had brought the good report, “rent their clothes; and they spake unto all the company of the children of Israel, saying, The land which we passed through to search it is an exceeding good land.” Let us not forget this. We owe it to our God to give a good report of the land which lies before us. “If Jehovah delight in us, then he will bring us into this land and give it us — a land, which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not ye against Jehovah, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, and Jehovah is with us. Fear them not. But all the congregation bade stone them with stones. And the glory of Jehovah appeared in the tabernacle of the congregation before all the children of Israel.” This was Israel — Israel in the wilderness — Israel in presence of the goodly land and of the earnest which had been set before their eyes.
The glory of Jehovah appears accordingly, and then He speaks to Moses. “How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have showed amongst them? I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.” What is the effect now? How does Moses answer this offer? God was willing to begin again — to make a fresh start. As with Abraham, so He would take Moses as a fresh stock to work from. He was willing to make him such a name as Moses otherwise could not hope for. The heart of Moses answered to the heart of God. He .would not hear of it. The offer was to bring out the love that held to what God can afford to be to His people. What He might do for Moses he would not now think of. And Moses said unto Jehovah, “Then the Egyptians shall hear it.” How blessed to hear a man feeling for Jehovah’s name and glory! — “Then the Egyptians shall hear it (for thou broughtest up this people in thy might from among them); and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou, Jehovah, art among this people, that thou, Jehovah, art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if thou shalt kill all this people as one man, then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying, Because Jehovah was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness. And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken” (verses 13-17).
Thus Moses could not bear Jehovah’s character to be compromised, and so he holds Him tenaciously, as it were, to His own word, saying, “Jehovah is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people, according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” He cleaves to the word of God and to His ways — to the love that He had so often proved, even to the faithless people whom He knew so well from the first. If He had borne with them before, surely He would not turn from them now. “And Jehovah said, I have pardoned according to thy word: but as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of Jehovah” (verses 20, 21).
Observe how at the same time that Jehovah pronounces judgment, He acts according to the very word to which Moses had tied Him in his faith. If his faith did not rise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their absolute and unconditional promises, it went back to the governmental pledge of Jehovah, and to this Jehovah adheres. Consequently that generation was dealt with and purged away, according to the terms of His own proclamation. He would surely hold fast His mercy, but He would by no means clear the guilty. Pardon there was, otherwise Israel had not gone into the land, but He would “by no means clear the guilty;” and so that generation fell. Thus God preserved His character intact, and His hand made good what His mouth had uttered. Another day a deeper evil would make it necessary to fall back, not on what God had said in the wilderness, but what He had promised to the fathers. In the prophets we constantly find that there is a going back in faith, not to what was brought out provisionally during the wilderness, but to what was promised at the beginning (i.e. to the fathers). Thus the end will be the accomplishment of the beginning. The law comes in by the by; and the governmental dealings that accompanied it, instructive then and for all times morally and typically, share in themselves its tentative character.
There is another thing to remark here. In this evil state of things Israel had taunted their children, or rather God about them, as if they were exposed to inevitable death. Unbelief had thus fastened on the little ones, as if it was vain to expect that such as they could pass through the desert safely, and enter the land in face of the enemy. The very people that yielded to such unbelieving doubt of Jehovah’s care did themselves reap the consequences; while the children, who, as they thought, could not possibly be preserved through the horrors of the wilderness, were the only ones brought in with the two men who vindicated «oaf and held fast to His word, Caleb and Joshua. Alas! as we know, even Moses and Aaron passed away. There arose that which needed their removal as the discipline of Jehovah in their case. Caleb and Joshua, who gave God credit for a good land, and for a hand mighty enough to bring the weakest in, entered Canaan in due time; and so did the little ones, who, if their fathers were to be believed, must surely fall by the way. But God alone is worthy of trust; and we see how perfect He is in His ways, and how sure and good is the end. But we see too how dangerous it is to allow the complaints and murmurings of unbelief, lest the Lord hear and deal with us according to our folly.
If the latter part of the chapter sets before us a burst of courage, it was merely of the flesh, and received a rebuke from Jehovah. The people, heretofore so unwilling to go, are now too ready; but they went without Jehovah, and the Amalekites and Canaanites turned round on them, indicting a severe defeat. They were discomfited even unto Hormah (verses 40-45).
A chapter (Num. 15) follows which might seem extraordinary at first sight. It is a sample of that apparent disorder in the word of God which is only an example of a higher and divine order. God does not arrange things according to man. If we have only patience and faith to believe that He never sinks below His own glory, we shall prove this, and know Him better in due time. We need not wait for it till we get to heaven; we may count on seeing what is according to His will for us here. Impossible that the heart could truly desire from God what He would keep back from it. So, after all this miserable history, universal unbelief working among the people of God, and in presence of this calamitous defeat, to the shame of Israel, before their foes that hated them, Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come into the land of your habitations, which I give unto you, and will make an offering by fire unto Jehovah,” which was duly prescribed — a fresh pledge of bringing them into Canaan. And this is exactly the force of it. So again it is repeated in the middle of the chapter. “Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye come into the land whither I will bring you.” This was His answer to the unbelief which thought that all must perish — a double witness that God would surely bring them in. Unbelief along the way did not turn aside His love, nor unbelief about the end, for they despised the pleasant land. God holds calmly here to His purpose, though only He knew of the rebellion just about to break out and all that was to follow. He speaks of their future offerings of sweet savour with the drink-offerings of wine in the land of promise; and this for the stranger just as for the Israelite. For here the grace of God runs over, presumptuous sin alone being fatal, as we shall now see.
For as the next lesson we learn that God in no way bound Himself not to judge what was contrary to His glory by the way. “And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the seventh day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.” And here comes out a very important principle — what is to be done where we have not a distinct word of the Lord so far as we know. There is always one great safeguard, namely, to wait. Never be in a hurry in devising a remedy, or in exercising a discipline, without the word of the Lord. What is done cannot be undone. It is better to wait and take the place of ignorance, but at the same time of ignorance that is confident that the Lord hears and cares for us. This is exactly what they did. And they were right. “And Jehovah said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death. All the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.” Thus, whatever might be the solemnity of the sentence, the children of Israel had a fresh proof that God entered into their difficulties and took the greatest interest in what concerned them. Never can souls wait upon the Lord and be confounded.
But there is more than that. Jehovah speaks again unto Moses, saying, “Speak unto the children of Israel. and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a riband of blue: and it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring: that ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God.”
It is not only that God graciously waits on the people that wait upon Him, and appears for them, and knows how to give them what they have never learnt before; but He deigns to use a means, and a very weighty means, of reminding them of His word. And what is this? The riband of blue was a continual means of reminiscence for the people of the Lord. And have we nothing to remind us? Indeed we have, and there is one grand means, I am persuaded, while we are in the wilderness, of putting us in mind of His will and the walk proper to us. There is nothing that better enables us to walk on earth than the consciousness that we are of heaven. Is not this the meaning of the riband of blue?
But after such comforting thoughts as these there comes out something still more tremendous than ever in Numbers 16. It is not complaint now, nor murmuring; it is not merely unbelief because of the difficulties of the wilderness, nor is it the casting of a bad character on God’s gift and choice in the land which their unbelief was reluctant to go up and take in the name of Jehovah. There is a conspiracy under the fairest pretensions possible. This does not mend matters. The basest things sometimes put on the most pious guise. No man should be deceived by sound. The Christian is meant to judge things according to God. The men who did so were not by any means such as we should have thought most likely to have joined themselves rebelliously against Jehovah. “Now Korah the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi” (the most honourable portion among those who had the direct service of the sanctuary), “and Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men.” That is, there were those who belonged to the ministering class, and those that were chief men in the congregation, generally representatives of what people would call in modern days leading men in church and state. “And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown. And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and Jehovah is among them. Wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of Jehovah? And when Moses heard it, he fell upon his face.”
It is a good thing when the haughtiness that Satan knows so well how to excite brings out nothing but lowliness and humiliation of our souls before God. Haughtiness is apt to provoke haughtiness, and flesh to irritate flesh; but it was not so with Moses. “And he spake unto Korah and unto all his company, saying, Even tomorrow Jehovah will show who are his, and who is holy; and will cause him to come near unto him: even him whom he hath chosen will he cause to come near unto him. This do; Take you censers, Korah, and all his company; and put fire therein, and put incense in them before Jehovah tomorrow: and it shall be that the man whom Jehovah doth choose, he shall be holy: ye take too much upon you, ye sons of Levi And Moses said unto Korah, Hear, I pray you, ye sons of Levi: Seemeth it but a small thing unto you, that the God of Israel hath separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself to do the service of the tabernacle of Jehovah, and to stand before the congregation to minister unto them?” Unbelief shows itself constantly in this very form. If God puts an honour on a man, and he does not take it from Him, it is only a stepping stone for despising the God who gave it to him while grasping after that which He has never given. There is nothing that produces such dissatisfaction as the heart’s not estimating aright what God has allotted to us. Whatever is His will alone secures real joy and strength, and happy results to the glory of the Lord. Now in this case these men were not satisfied with their position either as princes of the congregation on the one hand, or as Levites on the other. They sought to be as Aaron and Moses.
What makes this so solemn a chapter is, that the Spirit of God distinctly applies it to the anticipated course of Christendom. We all need its warning. In the epistle of Jude the beginning, way, and end are perfectly brought before us. “The way of Cain” is the great departure at the beginning of this world’s moral history, where brother slew brother, jealous of his acceptance with God, as well as of the righteousness which rebuked his own want of it. “The error of Balaam” is the clerical evil of turning the name of God into a means of earthly honour and gain, not without hypocrisy. The last we have now before us, “the gainsaying of Core,” and here those that depart from God perish. For this is not merely the selfish diversions of the truth to a means of aggrandisement according to the covetousness of the heart, bad as it was, but open, deliberate insurrection against the rights of Christ Himself. Moses was the apostle of the Jewish profession, as Aaron was its high priest. Christ is the apostle and the high priest of our profession; and the assertion and the exercise of a priesthood now for man is a direct invasion of that which can only be carried out exclusively by Jesus Christ at the right hand of God.
There never was a time when such pretensions were put forth more distinctly than at this present moment. Of old it was not exactly so. In earlier days the writings, for instance, of those that are commonly called “the fathers” show that it was rather an insensible slide; but the solemn fact confronts us now that it is on the part of men who have the Bible, and this circulated, read, proclaimed in the very streets — an unexampled propagation of the word of God, and of that which is drawn from the word of God, and this even in what are called “Protestant lands.” Consequently it takes the shape of an apostacy, accompanied by hatred of the truth of God; and so much the more because there has been in past history the fatal experience of the effects that follow a slip into a human priesthood. But now there is a growing rejection of the truth of God, and despite done to the Spirit who witnesses the grace of Christ. The attempt once more is to return to naturalism from grace and truth, after both have been fairly brought before the minds of men. No wonder therefore the Spirit of God says that they shall perish in the gainsaying of Korah.
But Jehovah acts in His most solemn vindication of His will against the adversaries, as described in this chapter. They perish too. “And the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses, and all the men that appertained unto Korah, and all their goods. They, and all that appertained to them, went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished from among the congregation. And all Israel that were round about them fled at the cry of them: for they said, Lest the earth swallow us up also. And there came out a fire from Jehovah, and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.”
And then was marked the choice of God and the value of the high priest that had been despised. For it is said, “Speak unto Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest, that he take up the censers out of the burning, and scatter thou the fire yonder; for they are hallowed. The censers of these sinners against their own souls, let them make them broad plates for a covering of the altar: for they offered them before Jehovah, therefore they are hallowed: and they shall be a sign unto the children of Israel. And Eleazar the priest took the brazen censers, wherewith they that were burnt had offered; and they were made broad plates for a covering of the altar: to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, that no stranger, which is not of the seed of Aaron, come near to offer incense before Jehovah; that he be not as Korah, and as his company: as Jehovah said to him by the hand of Moses. But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of Jehovah. And it came to pass, when the congregation was gathered against Moses and against Aaron, that they looked toward the tabernacle of the congregation: and, behold, the cloud covered it, and the glory of Jehovah appeared. And Moses and Aaron came before the tabernacle of the congregation. And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Get you up from among this congregation, that I may consume them as in a moment. And they fell upon their faces. And Moses said unto Aaron, Take the censer, and put fire therein from off the altar, and put on incense, and go quickly unto the congregation, and make an atonement for them: for there is wrath gone out from Jehovah; the plague is begun. And Aaron took as Moses commanded, and ran into the midst of the congregation; and, behold, the plague was begun among the people.”
Thus God was not content with an immediate and final judgment executed on the leaders of the rebellion, but the people whose hearts went with it were judged by the plague. We find here Moses and Aaron yet more remarkable for their earnestness of purpose than for the activity of divine affection in the endeavour that the grace of the Lord should appear for the guilty people. “Moses stood,” it is said, “between the dead and the living, and the plague was stayed.” Thus was proved doubly what God thought of the presumption of these Levites: — on the one hand the judgment of the presumptuous Levite and his party, with the after-clap of the plague among the people; on the other hand the efficacy and grace of the priesthood whom pride and unbelief had sought to supplant under pretence of due honour to all the people of Jehovah.
But there is more than this in Numbers 17. God would turn it to a practical and a permanent account; and this in a gracious way now, not to call up the remembrance of a sorrowful and humbling judgment. He tells them to speak to the children of Israel that each of them should take a rod “according to the house of their fathers, and of all their princes according to the house of their fathers, twelve rods: write thou every man’s name upon his rod. And thou shalt write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi.” And these were put in the tabernacle, before the testimony, where Jehovah met with Moses when He made manifest His mind. The answer was soon given. “And it came to pass that on the morrow Moses went into the tabernacle of witness; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded,. and brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds. And Moses brought out all the rods from before Jehovah unto the children of Israel; and they looked, and took every man his rod.” It was not only an indisputable sign of choice of the person, but a most significant token of the true place of priesthood, which was here in type founded on death and resurrection. Plainly there is no bearing of fruit except according to the priesthood which Jehovah chose for them. It was not merely to be the means of staying the plague in the presence of an evident divine judgment, but the habitual witness that real fruit-bearing fit for the sanctuary of God springs only from the priesthood that Jehovah has chosen. There is the expression, no doubt, of authority; but that authority is by grace, and for gracious ends. The rod was the figure; at first the dead rod, which quickly proves the vigour of life imparted in the grace of God, and brings forth fruit for His sanctuary. Strange to say, the children of Israel are more alarmed, if possible, at the witness of the gracious power of God than at the plague which had devoured them just before. “We die,” say they; “we perish; we all perish.” There is nothing so blind as unbelief. Daring in the presence of a pestilence, which in itself followed an unprecedented judgment, they are fearful even unto death in the presence of the sign of all-overcoming grace in life and fruit-bearing.
In Numbers 18 we have the connection of Aaron with the tribe of Levi, which will not demand more than a few passing words. It is of the utmost importance that the external service should never be severed from the priesthood which enters within. This is exactly what seems set forth here (verses 2, 4). The tendency of ministry, when it does not presumptuously set up to priestly honour, is always to content itself with a place without, and thus to get severed from Christ on high. It never can be so without the deepest loss. Whenever ministry becomes a mere human institution, founded on education and chosen by man, instead of depending on the sovereign call of the Lord Jesus, who uses those called for His own glory, how deplorable the descent to the minister, how dishonouring to the Lord, and how ruinous the result to all concerned! The dependence of ministry then on Christ in the presence of God is what is taught, as it appears to me, by the Levite, the sign of him that is engaged in the service being given to Aaron. It was a remarkable arrangement, the force of which has not always been seen. God would thus keep up the connection of that which goes without with what passed within the veil.
The priests had all the offerings and sacrifices of which man might partake; the Levites had the tithes from all Israel: the one fed from within, the other from without; but both received from Jehovah, for He was their inheritance. Otherwise they were miserable: what else had they?
In Numbers 19, which follows, we have another most instructive ordinance of God, peculiar to the book of Numbers. “This is the ordinance of the law which Jehovah hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.” What the great atonement-day is to the centre of the book of Leviticus, the red heifer is to the book of Numbers. Each seems characteristic of the book wherein they are given, which shows how systematic are the order and contents of Scripture.
Thus we have here a provision distinctly for the defilements which are met with as we journey through this world. This is of vital moment in practice. There is many a soul disposed to make the atonement do, as it were, all the work. There is no truth more blessed than the atonement, unless it be His person who gives that work its divine value; but we must leave room for all that our God has given us. There is nothing which so tends to make a sect as to take truth out of its proportions, treating a part as if it were the whole mind of God. It cannot be too much insisted upon, that the Bible is the book which delivers from all petty exclusiveness. What does it matter to have good thoughts here and right ways there, if there be along with this the essential vice of settling down contented with a part of God’s mind to the rejection of the rest? Our place is carrying out the Lord’s will, nothing but His will, and all His will, as far as we know it. Less than this gives up the glory of Christ. It is impossible to be sectarian where His word governs all; and there is no way of being unsectarian without it. Our being in this position or that will never make us individually and really unsectarian. The seeds of error go along with wretched self, from which there is no deliverance except by walking in the power of Christ dead and risen. This too applies here, where we have not merely the wrong of sectarianism, but the evil of thus abusing the most precious truths of God. When used exclusively, they will ere long turn into an excuse for sin, whatever the high assumptions of an earlier stage.
It will not do to confine the saint then even to Christ’s atoning work, which has for ever abolished our guilt before God; not even if we add to this that we know now that in Him risen we are placed in an entirely new position, a life where evil never enters. Both most true and precious; but are these the whole truth? Certainly not; and there is no course more dangerous than to construe them as the whole truth. They are as precious as they are needed for the soul; but there is really no part of truth which is not needed, and this largeness and openness to all truth is precisely what we have to insist on. Indeed I am persuaded that this is after all what is most peculiar — to avoid peculiarities and pet subjects, welcoming all truth by the grace of God. Not that one can say much if the question be, How far we have made it our own? but it is truly of God to be in a position where all truth is open to us and we to it, and which does not exclude a single fragment of God’s mind and will. It will be impossible, I am assured, save on the ground of the assembly of God, to find a place which will not shut out truth, and perhaps much which is evidently most precious. It is well to guard sedulously another thing — that we do not simply satisfy ourselves that we are on right ground according to God, but that our hearts earnestly desire to turn what He has given us always and only to the account of His glory.
The red heifer teaches the children of Israel on the surface of it that the work of the day of atonement had not so completely dealt with all sin that they might treat daily defilements as immaterial. It is impossible to exaggerate the value of the shedding of Christ’s blood for our sins. It does give no more conscience of sins. We are justified by His blood; yea more, with Christ we have died to sin; and we are alive to God in Him. But though this is all quite true (and was then set forth imperfectly as far as figure could, when we look at an Israelite), such grace is the strongest motive why we cannot tamper with what is defiled. The very fact that we are cleansed perfectly before God is a loud call to us not to endure a blot before men. It was to guard His people from soils by the way that God gave here a provision so remarkable. “A red heifer” was to be brought “without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke,” a striking picture of Christ, but of Christ in a way not often spoken of in scripture. The requirement supposes not only the absence of such blemishes as was indispensable in every sacrifice; but here expressly also it must have never known the yoke, that is, the pressure of sin. How this speaks of the antitype! Christ was always perfectly acceptable unto God. “And ye shall give her to Eleazar the priest that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face.”
The blood was taken and put seven times before the tabernacle. It was quite right that the connection should be kept up with the great truth of the blood that makes atonement, and that vindicates God wherever the thought of sin occurs. But its special use points to another feature. The sprinkling of the blood is the continual witness of the truth of sacrifice; but the characteristic want follows. “And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn. And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.” Then we find the ashes of the heifer laid up in a clean place. “And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation; it is a purification for sin.” In what sense? Simply and solely with a view to communion, i.e. of restoring it when broken. It is not at all a question of establishing relationships (that was already done), but on the ground of the subsisting relation the Israelite must allow nothing by the way which would sully the holiness that suits the sanctuary of Jehovah. This was the point.
Such is the true standard as set forth in this type. It is not merely the law of Jehovah condemning this or that. This shadow of good things demanded separation from anything inconsistent with the sanctuary. The form which this ordinance took was in respect of travelling through the wilderness, where they were exposed constantly to the contact of death. It is death that is here brought in as defiling in various shapes and degrees. Supposing one touched the dead body of a man, he shall be unclean seven days. What was to be done? “He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean.” It was not permitted to purify one’s self on the first day. Am I wrong in thinking that à priori we might have thought this haste much the best course? Why not at once? It was ordered not for the first but the third day. When there is defilement on the spirit, when anything succeeds in interrupting communion with God, it is of deep moral importance that we should thoroughly realize our offence.
This seems the meaning of its being done on the third day. It was to be no mere sudden feeling that one had sinned, and there was an end of the matter. The Israelite was obliged to remain till the third day under a sense of his sin. This was a painful position. He had to reckon up the days, and remain till the third, when he has the water of separation first sprinkled on him. “In the mouth of two or three witnesses” (the well-known provision in every case) “every word shall be established.” Thus we see he who had come in contact with death must remain an adequate time to show the deliberate sense of it, and must take the place of one that was defiled before God. A hasty expression of sorrow does not prove genuine repentance for sin. We see something like this with children. There is many a one who has a child ready enough to ask for forgiveness, or even own its fault; but the child that feels it most is not always quick. A child who is far slower to own it may have, and commonly has, a deeper sense of what confession means. However I am not now speaking of the natural character; but I say that it is right and becoming (and this I believe to be the general meaning of the Lord’s ordinance here) that he who is defiled (that is, has his communion with God interrupted) should take that place seriously. Of course in Christianity it is not a question of days, but of that which corresponds to the meaning; which is that there should be time enough to prove a real sense of the evil of one’s defilement as dishonouring God and His sanctuary, and not the haste which really evinces an absence of right feeling. He who duly purified himself on the third day was in effect purified on the seventh day
Thus first of all he has a sense of his sin in the presence of this grace that provides against it; then he has at last the precious realization of grace in the presence of sin. The two sprinklings are one the converse of the other. They set forth how sin had brought shame on grace, and how grace had triumphed over sin. This seems the meaning, and more particularly for the following reason. The ashes of the heifer express the effect of the consuming judgment of God on the Lord Jesus because of sin. It is not simply blood showing that I am guilty, and that God gives a sacrifice to put it away. The ashes attest the judicial dealing of God in the consumption, as it were, of that blessed offering which came under all the holy sentence of God through our sins. The water (or Spirit by the word) gives us to realize Christ’s having suffered for that which we alas! are apt to feel so little if not to trifle with it
There is another thing to notice in passing. The water of purification was not merely wanted when one touched a dead body, but in different modes and measures. That might be called a great case, but the institution shows that God takes notice of the least thing. So should we — at least in ourselves. “This is the law, when a man dieth in a tent: all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. And every open vessel, which hath no covering bound upon it, is unclean. And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.” “The bone of a man” might be a much lesser object, but whatever defiles comes into notice, and is provided for in Christ our Lord. Thus God would habituate us to the nicest discernment and the most thorough self-judgment. It is not only grave matters that defile, but little occasions, as men would say, which come between us and communion with our God and Father. At the same time He provides the unchanging remedy of grace for every defilement.
In Numbers 20 connected truth appears when they are calling out for water. “There was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.” It was really, as we would say, against the infinite grace of our Lord Jesus. This is what answers to it in the antitype. This might seem strong to say of Christians; but whenever we are tried and occupied with circumstances, are we not doing so? Do you think the Lord does not know what troubles us? Do you think the Lord does not send it for our good? It may be bad in another; but the chief point we have to look at is to see the good hand of the Lord, no matter what it is. We are not to be “overcome of evil,” but to “overcome evil with good.” The true way to do so is to count on the Lord Jesus regulating everything. All power is given to Him on earth and heaven; and why should we not be happy in His ways with us? He it is who deals with us, whatever may be the instrument and whatever the circumstances.
Here the people, having no water, began to chide with Moses, “and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before Jehovah!” There is nothing too base for one even belonging to God when God is not before his eyes. “And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink. And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of Jehovah appeared unto them. And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.” And Moses did take the rod from before Jehovah as He commanded him; but when he with Aaron gathered the people, he said to them, “Hear now, ye rebels!” Instead of speaking to the rock he speaks to them. He was not told to do so.
It was disobedience if Moses had done no more; but he goes farther than this, as we shall see. “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod.” Alas! he brought another rod, his own; whereas Jehovah told him to bring “the rod;” that is, the rod of Aaron. It was the rod of priestly grace, with which God wished him to speak to the rock; the rod that told how God could cause life to work where there had been death, and could produce fruit too according to His own marvellous grace; for He knows how to quicken, entirely beyond the thoughts of man or nature. Although Moses brings out “the rod” according to the word of Jehovah, he does not use it according to Him. He strikes with his own rod. What was its distinctive character? His was the rod of authority, and of judicial power. Of old he had used that rod aright (Exodus 17): it was a question of judgment falling on the rock — then only. Just so Christ “once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.” Now He ever lives to make intercession for us.
But here Moses, completely losing sight of the infinite grace of God in this wondrous transaction and provision for His people, and falling back on the principle of judgment, misrepresented the God that he had sought to magnify, and whose grace it was his greatest joy to reflect. It was not so now, and hence a grievous failure. It became sin unto death to Moses, for God most of all resents a grave misrepresentation of Himself on the part of one who ought to have known Him well. It was precisely because Moses and Aaron were so near to God, because they had entered (Moses particularly) into the grace of Jehovah, that now under these circumstances total failure on their part became the occasion for setting aside Moses as a vessel that had done its work. He was not fit to lead them into the land — the goodly land. It was a sore trial; it was a deep pain, you may be sure, to Moses’s heart, though he never distrusted Jehovah after this, I am persuaded, but bowed with beautiful grace to His will, as we shall see in the history that follows. At the same time Moses felt and was meant to feel it all. But it is a sorrow that one who had conducted them so truly according to God, and who had stood so firm in circumstances yet more trying, should have failed, as it were, when close to the very brink of the land — when drawing near to the point from which they were to enter on the Canaan of Jehovah’s choice. But so it was. Moses failed, departed from the rich grace of God, fell back on judgment; and judgment accordingly dealt with him. Moses did not act according to Jehovah. He lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice. Jehovah did not withhold the supply. The water came out abundantly; but this was to God’s own praise, and in nowise an endorsement of Moses’s failure. “And Jehovah spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.”
After this (verse 14) we find Moses sending messengers, that they might pass through the land of Edom. Edom refuses; and Jehovah bids Aaron to go up. The time was come for him to pass away, and for Eleazar his son to take his place.
The endeavour to set Deut. 2:29 in opposition to Num. 20:14-21 is due either to perverse ill-will, or to mere inattention and rashness.5 Edom did refuse to let Israel pass through, yet they did pass through at last. The two occasions were quite distinct. The refusal of Edom recorded in the latter scripture occurred at a different time and place from that in which Israel effected the passage through their territory. The messengers were sent from Kadesh, not the district in general but the city, in their uttermost border, it would appear on the north-west; and this before the death of Aaron. But the passage was actually made some time after his death by the south of Edom by the way of the Red Sea, as indeed we may learn from Num. 21. So Num. 33:36 et seqq. shows Israel leaving Kadesh for Mount Hor, and Aaron goes up into the mountain and dies. From Hor we next hear of their encamping in Zalmonah, when they had turned the southern extremity of Edom, and were advancing northward on the east of the mountainous tract before reaching the border of Moab. Thus, if we compare the previous verses (30-35), we see that the children of Israel first came down from Moseroth in or near Mount Hor on the west of Edom to Ezion-gaber on the Red Sea; thence they went up the Arabah again to Mount Hor (verses 36, 37), when Aaron’s death took place; and thence they came down by the same western side of Edom to Ezion-gaber on the Red Sea once more, thus compassing Mount Seir many days before they turned northward. No less than thirty-seven years elapsed from the days in which they came from Kadesh-barnea till they crossed the brook Zered. (Deut. 2:14) The object of that long stay there was in order that the old generation might gradually die off.
It may be added that Deut. 10:6, 7 entirely falls in with the routes already indicated, verse 6 showing us the latter part of their upward journey from Ezion-gaber to Mosera in Mount Hor, where Aaron died, as verse 7 traces the subsequent journey down again as far as Jotbath or Jotbatha. Num. 33. furnishes us details of this journey southward, but simply the broad facts that they departed from Mount Hor and encamped in Zalmonah on their final northward march by the eastern side of Mount Seir. Derangement in the order of the places named is only in the minds of hasty readers, not in the scriptures when patiently considered.
The only other point that I shall notice, as closing this part of my subject, is given in Numbers 21; that is, we find Israel in the presence of the Canaanite king of Arad, who at first takes some prisoners. Israel vows to Jehovah that he will utterly destroy them, if He will deliver the people into his hand. Jehovah hearkens, and such destruction ensues that the place is thence called Hormah.
Soon after this, however, occurs a very serious scene of warning for our souls (verse 4 et seqq.). It is no uncommon case: a time of victory has to be watched, lest it be a precursor of danger. A time of defeat, on the other hand, constantly prepares one for a fresh and greater blessing from God — so rich is His grace. He knows how to lift up the fallen, but He makes those that are too light with their victory to feel their total weakness and the constant need of Himself. So it was with Israel. They became much discouraged immediately after their great victory, and they speak against God and against Moses. “And Jehovah sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” They at once fly to Moses, and ask him to pray to Jehovah for them; and Moses is directed by Jehovah to make a fiery serpent. “Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”
It is important, I think, for our souls to see this — that, as connected with the wilderness and with the flesh, there is no life for man. Life is not for man in the flesh. Death is the Lord’s way of dealing with fallen humanity. How then is man to live? “I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me,” to quote another New Testament application of the truth now before our minds. “I if I be lifted up” — it is a Saviour no longer on the earth, but lifted up from it: I do not say in heaven, but a Saviour rejected and crucified. This is the means of divine attraction when sin has been thus definitively judged. There can be no adequate blessing without the cross for man as he is; for thus only is God glorified as to sin. This is what in type comes before us here.
But why, it may be asked, the serpent of brass? Why after that figure? For another most solemn reason. It is not only that a crucified Saviour is the means of salvation to man; but, besides, the figure intimates One “made sin,” though in His own person He were the only One who “knew no sin.” Had He known sin, He could not have been a Saviour according to divine holiness; had He not been made sin, we had never been really delivered from its judgment. He is, and He was made, exactly what God would have Him to be, and what we most needed Him to be. He is all this for us, and, mark, all for us now. We shall have all the glorious consequences in due time; but, even now, having Himself on the completion of His work, we have to faith all things in Him. So here Israel had all things by the way; they had life, as we see — life won by victory over the power of sin and death.
Thus, as we hear just after this, God gives them joy by the way — springs of joy and gladness, as we afterwards find — the well in the desert which the princes digged. After all not much digging was required: with their staves was quite enough. Such is the goodness of God to us even for the wilderness. The well was not made by dint of hard work on the part of those used to labour. The princes put to their hands with their staves; and they probably did not know much about toil. But it was enough. Over-abounding grace thus gives abundant refreshment for the people as following that which God had before Him — the beautiful type which Christ Himself applied to His own bearing the judgment of sin on the cross: once sin is judged, once life is given, what does God not give because of it and in unison with it? “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things.”
The rest of the chapter shows us the triumphant progress of the people, with their victories (often alluded to in the law and the psalms) over Sihon king of the Amorites, and Og king of Bashan. Two references are made in the account of this — one to a book of that day, the book of the wars of Jehovah (verse 14); the other to certain proverbial sayings or legends then in vogue (verses 27-30). This does not, as the rationalists pretend, give the smallest support to the hypothesis that Moses composed the Pentateuch from a mass of previous material floating among the Israelites of his age and their Gentile neighbours. Written and oral, these foreign traditions are purposely cited with the exceptional end in view of proving from witnesses unimpeachable in the eyes of their most zealous adversaries that the land in debate, when Israel took it by conquest, did not belong to Ammon or Moab, but to the doomed races of Canaan and its vicinity. To the country of the former they had no just claim; that of the Amorite, etc., was given them up by God. The Amorite had taken it from Moab, and Israel from the Amorite, subsequently dwelling in all their cities, from Arnon to Jabbok, in Heshbon and all its villages. A Jewish record of its previous possessors and of their own victories might be disputed as interested by a foe; but a citation from their own current proverbial songs was conclusive; and the Spirit of God deigns to employ an extract to this end. In Judges 11 we see precisely this ground of recognised fact taken by Jephthah in refuting the claims of the then king of Ammon, and his pretensions proved baseless by the incontrovertible evidence that the Amorite had the disputed territory when Israel made himself master of it, spite of Balak king of Moab and all other rivals. On a somewhat similar principle the apostle does not hesitate to cite heathen testimonies in the New Testament, as no mean confession on their part for the matter in hand. (Acts 17:23, 28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:22)
Numbers 22 - 36.
The successes given to the children of Israel alarmed some of their neighbours, more particularly Moab; and this gives occasion for a striking episode in the history which brought to issue as solemn a question as any raised in the book of Numbers. The sending for Balaam on the part of Balak was an altogether new element. We have had the grace of God and His provisions for the people; we have had the unbelief of the people, with chastenings and judgments, not without the renewed declarations on God’s part of His surely bringing even such a people into the goodly land. Grace alone could, but grace would do it.
But there was an enemy not yet fairly brought before our eyes — the power of Satan. It did not appear at first, but ere long it plays a most important part in the great transaction which now begins to open out in this chapter. Satan can take the place of an angel of light and righteousness: not invariably indeed, for he has other phases, but more especially with the people of God. On the other hand there was material for Satan to use, for the people had been notoriously faithless — had dishonoured God often and grievously. The question then was, Would God maintain a people guilty of the infraction of His own law? If so, would it not be a dishonour to Himself? What could He say? or how consistently could He meet Satan? Impossible that Satan should be in reality more careful of righteousness than God Himself. Nevertheless there was no small difficulty in appearances, and such a difficulty as human wit never can solve. How sorely it must have distressed one who loved the people!
But there is one simple and sure means of solving every difficulty. We know it in all its fulness; but even before it was fully explained, known, and brought out, the principle of it was always before faith. While unbelief invariably forgets and even shuts out God, faith invariably brings Him in; and whatever may be the difficulty of unbelief, it is evident there is none whatever to God. Thus then, although the heart may not understand how God is to reconcile His own character and express word and most solemn judgment of sin with the bringing of such a people into the land of promise, where His eye rests continually, it should not wait to understand but believe. In due season it surely will understand: only it has the comfort of the understanding being spiritual, not natural, the apprehension flowing from God, and not the pretension of man to think for God, and settle how things are to be done beforehand. It is infinitely more blessed to be as it were behind Him; to follow in His wake; to have Himself showing us every step of the way; to have Him allowing a difficulty to come out in its strength, that we may see how gloriously He settles all.
This is precisely what came out in the new trial which is to be brought before us. Balak sent not merely for Midian’s help, nor was it a question of the force of the world. He himself had the consciousness that there must be a power brought in superior to man; but he thought only of what he knew — a power that for an adequate consideration would gratify man’s lust, and allow of man’s will. However the true God enters on the ground unexpectedly; for we must carefully remember that Balak had no real knowledge of God. He no more thought of Jehovah, whatever use he might make of the name of God, than king Saul honoured Him when he consulted the witch of Endor. Besides the witch herself had no thought of the real spirit of Samuel; for I need not tell you, as no doubt you are all well aware that neither man nor devil has the smallest power over the spirits of those who are either righteous or unrighteous. As for the unrighteous, they are kept in prison till the day of judgment; as for the righteous, it need not be said they are with the Lord. I say then that neither man nor devil has power to produce them. But then we must remember there is a world of spiritual powers, and man is apt to confound with God beings with powers superior to his own. These are that hidden energy which has managed to usurp the place of God with bad consciences — so much the more polluting above all other evils, for it calls itself religion, and has come between the true God and the soul. Such is the source and character of all idolatry. This is its real nature before God. The outward forms are but the blind. The real power is demoniacal; it deceives and destroys.
Now these demons constantly personate whom they please. They may pretend to be the spirit of this person or that, but they are nothing of the sort; being not more than demons and nothing less. They deceive men by gratifying their distrust, lusts, and passions, and among the rest their fancy about friends and relatives, or all the while, it may be, assuming also to be God, angels, and so forth. This is what was from time to time going on then, as it had since the flood. It is no new thing, though becoming more familiar no doubt to men in these days of Christendom’s decrepitude — alas! days that are preparing the way for a still more awful power of Satan here below at the end of this age.
But God did not leave it to be a question of demons and deceits; for when Balak presumed to bring in that power above man to blight the prospects of His people, this at once called forth the true God. Balaam in his hypocritical way talks about consulting Jehovah. This too has always been. Those who have least to do with God often talk most flippantly about Him; and so it was of old as it is now. “God,” it is written, “came unto Balaam, and said, What men are these with thee?” He was not alarmed, being accustomed to an evil spirit. He did not know but that the power which came to him was the old familiar spirit. God caught the crafty in his own net. This is just where the mighty power of God shows what He is in the face of every adversary that dared to oppose His people. So when He asked the prophet what men these were, Balaam answers, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, hath sent unto me, saying, Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out. And God said unto Balaam, Thou shalt not go with them; thou shalt not curse the people: for they are blessed.”
We shall see in the sequel how wondrous was the way of God to turn thus the very effort of Satan against himself, and to make this most wicked wretch Balaam to be unintentionally opposed to all his interests, but held in the mighty hand of God, the instrument for sealing” as far as it could be done by man, the blessing of God upon His people! “And Balaam rose up in the morning, and said unto the princes of Balak, Get you into your land; for Jehovah refuseth to give me leave to go with you.” So the princes returned, and told Balak that Balaam refused to come. Balak, judging according to what man so well knows, according to his own heart and experience, sends princes more honourable than the others who came to Balaam, and they said to him, “Thus saith Balak the son of Zippor, Let nothing, I pray thee, hinder thee from coming unto me; for 1 will promote thee unto very great honour, and I will do whatsoever thou sayest unto me: come therefore, I pray thee, curse me this people.” Balaam then, partly with the cunning which seeks to make the best terms, partly also held contrary to his own thoughts by God’s hand, says, “If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of Jehovah my God, to do less or more. Now therefore, I pray you, tarry ye also here this night, that I may know what Jehovah will say unto me more.” But even here Balaam proves that all his talk about God was a mere pretence, and that there could be no reality of faith, or he would never have consulted again. Faith knows that God does not charge. He is not a man that he should lie, neither the son of man that he should repent.
Ignorant of God, Balaam thus detains the messengers; for his heart dearly loved the proffered honour and emolument. He bids them wait that he might consult Jehovah again. Here again he falls into the trap of his own covetousness; for “God came to Balaam at night, and said unto him, If the men come to call thee, rise up and go with them.” Not that this was the course of His holy will; it was God dealing with the froward according to his frowardness. This He does if there is not faith in his mind, and along with it a single eye; He permits that a man shall follow his own blind devices. This is righteous; and God accordingly so deals with Balaam. Where He sees integrity, He graciously . meets the trembling heart and the hesitating mind. But it was no question of hesitation with Balaam. There was self-will, and this too in the face of the glorious expression of God’s will. At bottom he makes nothing of God or His word. He had been distinctly told that he was not to curse the people, but to bless them; yet he waits with no other object than, if it were possible, to curse those whom God bade him bless. There was not a particle of faith, nor of the fear of God. Accordingly God now gives him up to his own devices. If he will join an idol, let him alone, as he would not be warned. That this is the true moral is made most plain; because it is said that, when Balaam rises in the morning, and saddles his ass, and goes with the princes of Moab, “God’s anger was kindled.” Clearly therefore, though God had told the man that was ignorant to be ignorant, and the man that was self-willed to go and do his own will, there was an expressed and solemn warning to the prophet that he was flying in the face of God. (Compare verses 12 and 22)
Then follows that incident of which the New Testament takes notice in 2 Peter 2, which I trust no one here will ever allow the smallest breath of suspicion to sully. In truth the means employed were, as always, exactly suited in divine wisdom to the case. I grant you it is not a usual thing for God to make a dumb ass speak; but were these circumstances usual? Was there not something awfully humiliating in such a brute being the rebuker of the guilty prophet? But this very fact was most significant — that it was an ass which rebuked a man not wanting in natural intelligence, and soon the vessel of the most beautiful declarations on God’s part, but not before the brute that he rode warned him of his folly and sin. On this I need not dilate.
The prophet then was permitted to know in the fullest possible manner, from the angel of Jehovah himself, wherefore it was that all these obstructions were put in his way. How gracious of God thus to make a man who was hurrying on to destruction pause and think, if anything could rouse him! But no, he was committed to wicked ways. Lawlessness must pursue its miserable course to an end no less miserable.
However he goes and he meets with Balak, who takes him to Kirjath-Huzoth. “And Balak offered oxen and sheep, and sent to Balaam, and to the princes that were with him. And it came to pass on the morrow, that Balak took Balaam, and brought him up into the high places of Baal, that thence he might see the utmost part of the people.” (Num. 22:40, 41) “And Balaam said unto Balak, Build me here seven altars, and prepare me here seven oxen and seven rams. And Balak did as Balaam had spoken; and Balak and Balaam offered on every altar a bullock and a ram. And Balaam said unto Balak, Stand by thy burnt-offering, and I will go: peradventure Jehovah will come to meet me: and whatsoever He showeth me I will tell thee. And he went to an high place.” And there again Elohim6 meets Balaam, when he says, “I have prepared seven altars, and I have offered upon every altar a bullock and a ram. And Jehovah put a word in Balaam’s mouth, and said, Return unto Balak, and thus thou shalt speak.” (Num. 23:1-5)
And wonderful is the word that was spoken. “Come, curse me Jacob.” When he takes up his parable he says, “Come, curse me Jacob, and come, defy Israel.” This was the word of Balak to him. He replied, “How shall I curse, whom God hath not cursed? or how shall I defy, whom Jehovah hath not defied? For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” That is, he states in the most explicit manner the great and certainly fundamental privilege of Israel — that they were a nation called out to be alone with and for Jehovah. This is the basis of all their blessing. They were unlike all the rest of the world in this, that they were set apart to be with Jehovah, the true Elohim.
Afterwards comes another message; for this is comparatively abstract, and the further demand of Balak brings out successively with ever-increasing clearness the special blessedness of the people, as far as God was pleased to make it known.7 He does not say whom he is to meet; and it seems to me that the true force of the verse is best reached by leaving it in the vague mystery which such an elliptical phrase conveys. Balaam knew well whom he was used to meet. At the least he could not but have suspicions, for there never is a person who honours a demon as the true God that has peaceful confidence of heart. Is it possible to confide in a demon? There may be perhaps a hazy dim idea which people do not like thoroughly to grasp or understand. That is in substance what natural religion or superstition amounts to. They leave souls always at a distance from God, with a sort of striving and searching after God, but in fact under some delusion of the adversary. In Balaam’s case there was even more than this, because he was tampering continually with secret power in order to gain influence over others, but as deliberately against God’s people as for himself.
Where was anything of God? — anything that could satisfy an upright conscience? However Jehovah does meet Balaam. Doubtless that was the reason why our translators put in “Jehovah” They judged that because Jehovah met him, he must have gone to meet Jehovah; whereas he only used the words “to meet,” perhaps unwilling to tell out his wonted source of help. But Jehovah gives him a new word, and a word that goes far beyond the first. “Rise up, Balak, and hear; hearken unto me, thou son of Zippor: Elohim is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good?” The language is in the finest style of Hebrew poetry.
Now we have the people of God the object of distinct communications from God. It is not only that they have Elohim as the One to whom they belong, and to whom they are severed apart from all other nations; but now He speaks to them, He communicates, He opens His mind and heart to them; and what is its purport? “Behold,” says he, “I have received commandment to bless: and he hath blessed; and I cannot reverse it. He hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob, neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel: Jehovah his Elohim is with him, and the shout of a King is among them. Elohim brought them out of Egypt.” The bold figures that are used and the allusions are all in the strictest connection with the fresh blessing. It is not merely separative grace, but distinct justification set forth.
It is only on the ground of the grace which justifies that God could call them according to that which was not, seeing them even now what He would make them to be through the Saviour. This is what is before His mind. It is plain that justification is altogether impossible for sinners, unless there be the blotting out of what they are, and the bringing in what they are not. How can these things be? It is through another alone that there can be justification. Thus only God “hath not beheld iniquity in Jacob.” It is not that He denies it; nor that there was no iniquity on their part, for indeed there was. “Neither hath he seen perverseness in Israel.” It is a question of what He looks at. “Jehovah his Elohim is with him, and the shout of a King is among them.”
Of course the time was not yet come to develop how this could be. Not till long after was the mighty work done by which alone it is possible; but we have the bold announcement, as far as it would have been proper to have expressed it by the lips of one that was an utter stranger to all in race as in heart; and we have it so much the more gloriously expressed, because it is simply given in its great principle by one who could see the ineffable blessedness of it without knowing in the least the experience of its comfort for his own soul. In God’s wisdom he was just the man to declare even to the enemy that it is entirely a question of what He has wrought, not in any way of Israel’s doings or deserts. “Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel; according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought! Behold, the people shall rise up as a great lion, and lift up himself as a young lion; he shall not lie down until he eat of the prey, and drink the blood of the slain.” (Compare Num. 24:9)
Balak was incensed; nevertheless he resolves to try another time. “And when Balaam saw that it pleased Jehovah,” we are told in the beginning of Numbers 24, “he went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments.” This again entirely confirms the remark that was made in the previous chapter as to what he went to meet. “He went not, as at other times, to seek for enchantments, but he set his face toward the wilderness. And Balaam lifted up his eyes, and he saw Israel abiding in his tents according to their tribes; and the spirit of God came upon him.” Thus when we have any object completely cleared before God from all question of sin, it is not His way to rest there. As we know, for the Christian there follows freedom, entirely apart from what he was, to enter into positive enjoyment both of the place of blessing in which he stands, and of God Himself now truly known in Christ. Justification is always a taking account of what we were, though a bringing us out of it; but when that is seen in its completeness, then we can go out into all the ways of God’s grace. And so it is here. The new word of Jehovah has another character, and is introduced therefore in a manner such as to mark its entire distinctness from the previous words given to the prophet.
“And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are opened hath said: he hath said, which heard the words of God, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open: How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles, O Israel!” It is the manifest preciousness of the place of Israel which drew out from his mouth at any rate (I do not say from his heart) the expression of the beauteous and goodly estate of the people. “As the valleys are they spread forth, as gardens by the river’s side, as the trees of lign-aloes which Jehovah hath planted, and as cedar trees beside the waters. He shall pour the water out of his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters, and his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. God brought him forth out of Egypt.” In both cases, you will observe, whether it is the comparatively negative side of justification, or the positive side of rich and joyous blessing with which the people are endowed of God, we have their bringing out of Egypt.
Another thought is striking. Balaam does not refer to what they were to be made in Canaan, but what God saw them to be — nay, what he himself was permitted to see them to be while they were in the wilderness. It is a wonderfully lovely picture therefore of what grace does for the Christian and the church now. For in virtue of redemption and Christ’s entrance into heavenly glory, and of the Holy Ghost sent down, in spite of all that is in this world, in spite of what has been justly designated the ruined state of the church here below, we are entitled always to take delight in the real beauty of God’s children and assembly even now. No doubt it is a vision only for faith; but it is a vision not for eyes shut, but for eyes open, as it is said here. Certainly, it is no illusion, no heated human imagination of what they are going to be. It is what God sees, and delights to give us to see by faith, in His people here below. Of course it was Israel, but the same principle is just as true; I need not say, and really with yet greater force, in the case of the Christian.
The still stronger terms, in the earlier vision of Numbers 24, which Balaam uses in speaking of the power with which God would invest them, bring Balak’s anger to a head; and he smites his hands together, and says, “I called thee to curse mine enemies, and, behold, thou hast altogether blessed them these three times.” We must remember that in all this Balaam was no more able to resist the power of God which wrought on and by him than Balaam’s ass could hold its peace before. We must not suppose that there was the smallest measure of real sympathy with what God was doing. The whole transaction was one of God’s power, in spite of all that could be done against His people, and this because God would confound the enemy which resorted to Satan’s power in order to bring a. curse on Israel. This it was to which God in sovereign grace responded in so grand an expression of their blessedness, and from a quarter so unlooked for.
But one supreme effort remains as far as cursing is concerned. Accordingly Balak tells Balaam now to begone, taunting him with the honour and wealth he had meant to give, from which Jehovah, he adds, had kept him back. But the prophet seems neither won by desire for his bribes, nor afraid of the king’s power. “If Balak,” says he, ‘‘would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the commandment of Jehovah, to do either good or bad of mine own mind; but what Jehovah saith, that will I speak. And now, behold, I go unto my people: come therefore, and I will advertise thee what this people shall do to thy people in the latter days.” It really embraces the end of this age.
Thus in the face of the king’s threats, of what might have seemed to be his own interests, Balaam after all was compelled to give another and a conclusive word from Jehovah, and this without going to meet . . . or Jehovah’s meeting him. It is what He said and commanded. Here there is not only the title of Shaddai (Almighty), as in the former prophecy, but of Elion (the Most High), who would dispose of the world as He pleased in view of His purposed judgment of the earth of and for His people; and here the prophet speaks unasked of the king. It is Jehovah all through, though care is taken to show that He is Elohim, and in suited connection Shaddai and Elion. “And he took up his parable, and said, Balaam the son of Beor hath said, and the man whose eyes are open hath said: he hath said, which heard the words of God, and knew the knowledge of the most High, which saw the vision of the Almighty, falling into a trance, but having his eyes open I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh.” Solemn words these which pronounce the man’s own condemnation of his own soul. How little it was a question of will or heart! “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth. And Edom shall be a possession, Seir also shall be a possession for his enemies; and Israel shall do valiantly. Out of Jacob shall come he that shall have dominion, and shall destroy him that remaineth of the city.”
Even when he looks at Amalek too, he goes farther and pronounces the sure doom of those that had assailed the people in the wilderness. “Amalek was the first of the nations, but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever.” Then, looking on the Kenites, he says, “Strong is thy dwelling-place, and thou puttest thy nest in a rock. Nevertheless the Kenite shall be wasted, until Asshur shall carry thee away captive.” But what about victorious Asshur? ‘` And he took up his parable, and said, Alas, who shall live when God doeth this I And ships shall come from the coast of Chittim, and shall afflict Asshur.” Thus it does not matter whether it be western powers or eastern, whether the adversaries be many or few, with what resources nor from what quarter. Amalek may be the first of nations, and Asshur bid fair to be last; yet affliction comes to Asshur and Eber; “and he also shall perish for ever.” It is the day of Immanuel, not of David or the Maccabees. Jehovah alone shall be exalted in that day.
Thus the intended curse of Balaam was turned into the most magnificent utterance of blessing ever pronounced on the people of God, stretching down to the latter days when Israel shall be exalted under the Most High God, the possessor of heaven and earth.
Who would not trust such a God, and such revelations of His mind and will? Who would not have confidence in the One who turns the bitterest and most subtle of enemies only the more powerfully to prove what God’s people are to Himself, and how vain the efforts of their worst foes?
In Numbers 25 we see a very different state of things among men, but the same God over all. Snares are set by Moab under Balaam’s counsel, yet all their subtlety could not turn God from Israel. Balaam (as we know, although it be not explained here but elsewhere) gives the enemy his cunning advice, and all at first goes on successfully. If he could not turn God from Israel, could he not turn Israel from God? Midianitish women become the instrument of seduction. This sorrowful occasion brings out now, not God causing an enemy to manifest what He is for His people, but Phinehas the priest roused with holy indignation, and executing judgment on the guilty pair in the face of a plague which fell on the people in these very circumstances. Phinehas accordingly has the covenant of an everlasting priesthood secured to him and to his seed because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel.
There is after this (Num. 26) a fresh numbering of the men of Israel in view of going to war. They were now on the borders of the holy land; and the same grace of God which took account of every one of His people when they entered the wilderness gives evidence that His love was unabated, and His personal interest the same to the end. There was all that could have turned Him aside, had it been possible. Without this there would have been merely the taking in the people as a whole; but here He gives this witness of what they were, every one of them, to Himself; for He loves to convince His people of His unwavering love, spite of failure on their part.
There is only one remark that I need make now on the persons that are enumerated here, but it is one of great interest, as it appears to me. The most solemn judgment recorded in the book of Numbers was that of Korah with his company in the awful scene where Jehovah created a new thing, and the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them up alive. The children of Dathan, Abiram, and the rest, were all swallowed up; but, wonderful to say, there was an exemption. Where was it? some particularly faithful person, who had the unhappiness to be nearly associated with them? Not at all. The exception of grace was in the household of the very worst of them. The people who deserved least of all, as man would have thought, to be exempted from destruction were precisely those for whom God did reserve this special grace — the sons of Korah! — of Korah the leader and organiser of the apostasy, from his position as well as in his conduct, above all others most guilty! The sons of Korah were the objects of a most singular deliverance. Is not this the true grace of God? It is the same God whom we now know, the same God from first to last. Grace is no new thing with Him; but where can you find a finer sample of its power and superiority to all circumstances than in the distinguishing grace that saved from destruction the children of gainsaying Korah, the most infamous of those who had conspired against the types of Christ’s royalty and priesthood; namely, Moses and Aaron? Nothing can be more explicit than the information here: “The earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died, what time the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men: and they became a sign. Notwithstanding the children of Korah died not.”
Further, this is, I think, an important key to the book of Psalms. Every attentive reader will have noticed that the second of the five divisions of the Psalms gives us at its beginning psalms entitled, “For the sons of Korah.” (Ps. 42 - 49)8 These mean the descendants of the men in question. And who were so fit to have such psalms and songs as the sons of Korah? What state does the second book of Psalms suppose? Assuredly as a whole days of future apostasy and the sorest trouble that the Jews will ever pass through. It is the last and greatest tribulation. It is the time when the mass of the nation will have completely cast off the true God and rejected His grace — will have abandoned His truth, and lost themselves in losing it. To this fiery trial it is that these psalms apply. And no doubt what was at the beginning of their history will be re-enacted, and more, at the end. In the midst of a condition guilty indeed, and in the nearest connection with those most guilty, God will reserve a remnant — not more surely the children of Korah in the wilderness than a band not unworthy of the name, and witnesses of no less grace from God in the last crisis. These psalms will be suited for those morally in similar circumstances, and delivered by the very same grace of God. Thus, we see, whether it be law or psalms or prophets, whether it be the gospel or the kingdom then, it is with the God of all grace that we have to do.
To the end of this chapter the account is given of the numbering.
In the next chapter (Num. 27) there is an incident of considerable interest which illustrates the tender thoughtfulness of God. “Then came the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph: and these are the names of his daughters; Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah. And they stood before Moses, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not in the company of them that gathered themselves together against Jehovah in the company of Korah; but died in his own sin, and had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he hath no son?” There was no son left. This was a case which had not yet arisen; but as we see the daughters of Zelophehad counted on God, and not in vain. It is impossible for God to be like poor man, who says, “You expect more good than I am prepared to bestow.” God could not make such an answer. He always gives more. Whatever may be the petition of faith, the answer of grace never fails to go beyond it. And so the daughters of Zelophehad have their place secured to them in the goodness of God, though outside the usual routine of law.
Further, Jehovah after this intimates to Moses to ascend Mount Abarim and see the land, and he is to be gathered to his people. This leads also to the appointment of another. There is this to be noticed in the appointment of Joshua, that he no less than Moses is a type of Christ, but with a distinct difference between the two. Joshua sets forth the Captain of Salvation, and this answers to Christ; but it is no longer Christ after the flesh: He is not viewed as a Jewish Messiah, blessed as this may be. For Christ is a great deal more than Messiah. After His rejection on the earth, when it was no longer a question of presentation to Israel as their King, Christ then acts in the power of the Holy Ghost, being no more present in a bodily manner. Joshua represents this. It is Christ, no doubt, but Christ acting in the power of the Spirit, not Christ in flesh connected with the promises and the hopes of Israel. This type is what we see here; it is developed in detail elsewhere. But even one feature should not be passed by. When Moses was leading the people, he acted alone; but when Joshua leads them, it is said, “He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall ask counsel for him after the judgment of Urim before Jehovah.” How does this apply to Christ? It might seem a difficulty, but in reality it confirms the application which has just been made; because we know that, while the people are led to take possession of the holy land, their privilege now is to cross the Jordan, and enter into those blessings with which they are blessed in heavenly places. Observe then here is the connection of Christ acting thus by the Spirit with His position as Priest. At the very same time that we are entering into our heavenly blessings by the power of the Spirit, we also have Christ as Priest in the presence of God. With Moses we find no such state of things. He was never told to stand before the priest. Aaron might speak rather than Moses, for he could speak well. Other duties he discharged, but nothing at all answering to this: so admirably does God watch over and shape and fashion all these types to impress the full truth on our souls. In Christ’s case, of course He was Himself head of the church, to work by the Spirit of God in us; but besides He is the great High Priest. He unites the two functions. They must necessarily be two different individuals in the type, but the great Antitype combines them.
In Numbers 28, 29 we have a somewhat difficult and certainly a very different exposé of the feasts and sacrifices from that which we found elsewhere. But all is easy to those who bear in mind the distinctive theme of the book. It is not merely, as was noticed, pilgrimage through the wilderness. This it is, but it comprises the earth also. In short the earth is the scene; and to us the wilderness. But the earth will not be always the wilderness. This is an important remark to make in order to understand Numbers. For there is a time coming when that which is now a wilderness will no doubt still be the earth for the people of God on it, but it will be no longer the chequered place of trial and sorrow which it is now. If we hold fast this fact, the application of these two chapters will be rendered more easy.
First of all we have the general offering. There is the sweet savour of Christ arising continually, in which God regards his people on the earth. It is the Lamb of God who invests all that are His with His own acceptance before God. This is what was meant by the daily lambs, but there is much more than this. It is said, “And on the sabbath-day two lambs of the first year without spot, and two-tenth deals of dour for a meat-offering.” This clearly goes on to the rest of God of which the sabbath is always the well-known figure. When it comes, the only difference will be that the testimony to the value of Christ will be more widely spread and fuller. God will never fail in causing the testimony to Christ’s sweet savour to rise before Him. Christianity has brought it out in its very depths; but then it is a thing only known to the believer on the one hand, and to God on the other. But when the sabbath dawns on the earth, the true sabbath of Jehovah in all its meaning, there will be a public witness of it all over the world that cannot be mistaken. This seems referred to in the doubling of the lamb. It is the idea of the rest of God contrasted with the time of working which precedes the rest (as, e.g., in the present time). “There remaineth therefore a rest (or a sabbath-keeping) for the people of God.” The time of the true rest is not yet come. Observe, it does not mean the rest we have got for our souls by faith. We must always guard against that common misapprehension. It is quite true that we have rest now in Christ for the conscience and the heart; but this is not the meaning of Heb. iv. It is rather the rest of glory for the people of God and for the world, when there will be this diffused testimony.
Then comes “the beginnings of your months.” This is peculiar to Numbers, being found in no other book of the Pentateuch. The reason seems to be that it is essentially bound up with the wilderness types of Israel — their experiences and changes as a people on earth “In the beginnings of your months,” that is, at the new moon, when there was the shining forth again of that which had waned away. Such a type in no way suits the church which is called during Israel’s darkness after the light waned and before it shines again. “And in the beginnings of your months ye shall offer a burnt-offering unto Jehovah; two young bullocks, and one ram, seven lambs of the first year without spot,” with their appropriate meat-offerings and drink-offerings. There is represented here the largest form of setting forth Christ offered to God in the bullock, with the idea of energy of devotedness to God, and this too in that adequacy of testimony which “two” represents. The sheep or the lower forms indicate, I suppose, Christ appreciated after a less measure. The bullock is the fullest appreciation of Christ. Those that had so long despised Him will now acknowledge Him with so much the greater fervour because of their former slight. The Lord graciously takes notice of this. The ram is a type of Christ as an offering of consecration to God; here it is but a feeble testimony — “one ram.” The “seven lambs” mean the completeness of Christ’s sweet savour before God. There is also, as we know, the necessary sin-offering.
But now we come to the feasts. On the fourteenth day of the first month the passover is noticed, where we have, as it is said, two young bullocks, just the same provision as was laid down for the beginning of months, the new moons. Further, in the case of the feast of weeks, “in the day of the first-fruits, when ye bring a new meat-offering unto Jehovah” (the Pentecostal offering), there is a similar type. “After your weeks be out, ye shall have a holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work: but ye shall offer the burnt-offering for a sweet savour unto Jehovah; two young bullocks, one ram, and seven lambs of the first year.”
What brings out the truth more distinctly is the change we find in coming down to the seventh month. This is the acknowledged type of what distinctively concerns Israel — Israel summoned and brought into the blessing of God. Here we see the difference very marked; for there is claimed but “one young bullock, one ram, and seven lambs of the first year without blemish” It lacks the fulness of testimony to grace which went out to the Gentile as well as the Jew. It is but a single witness to the grace that God is about to display to His people Israel. It may include the largest form of appreciation, but still it is only a partial witness of grace. There is but one young bullock — not the two found in the previous case. So again the atonement-day has just the same figure: “Ye shall have on the tenth day of this seventh month an holy convocation; and ye shall afflict your souls: ye shall not do any work therein: but ye shall offer a burnt-offering unto the Lord for a sweet savour; one young bullock, one ram, and seven lambs of the first year.”
But after a few days there is a very different type brought before us. “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month ye shall have an holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work, and ye shall keep a feast unto the Lord seven days: and ye shall offer a burnt-offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Jehovah; thirteen young bullocks.” Now surely this is very noticeable. Why such a change? There is nothing like it before. It is only when we come to the feast of tabernacles that this sudden change appears. Before this we hear in certain circumstances of two bullocks or one bullock: here there are thirteen. Why thirteen? Was this not intended to exercise our spiritual thought as to the truth of God? Are we not to infer that it is the all but fullest expression of Christ known on the earth? It is no longer the preparatory dealings. The first and the tenth days of the month mean the preparatory ways of God to bring the Jewish people back to their position of witnessing to the glory of Christ in the millennium. But now they are in that position — not in the preliminary processes, so to speak, with God gradually leading them on. Hence now we read, “Ye shall offer a burnt-offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Jehovah; thirteen young bullocks, two rams, and fourteen lambs of the first year.” The thirteen seems to signify that it is all but complete, and the fullest form of expressing this; for clearly two sevens would be the fullest expression of it. Thirteen is only short of this; the figure approaches completeness to the utmost. Such is the type of the millennium among the feasts. The millennium may not be perfection, but it will be indefinitely near it.
This feast gives us a true notion of that great day. It is false that there will be no sin in the coming age. At the same time sin will be quite exceptional. There will be a large effect produced in honour of the work of the Lord Jesus. The reconciliation of all things according to Christ and by His cross will be displayed in a manner only not complete. This is what is represented by the feast here.
But in the details of this feast there is evidence given of another striking fact. It would appear that there is not preserved adequately the sense of the Lord’s grace throughout the millennium. Alas! that age will exhibit symptoms of decline, as we know from elsewhere that at the end of it there will be a vast outburst of rebellion when Satan is let loose for a space. There has been but one faithful witness. Even in the millennium, when Satan no longer tempts, the solemn fact will be found that there is no sustainment of the power of testimony with which they began. Hence, as we find, this feast represents the whole scene of the millennial day. It is said that on the next day, the second day, “Ye shall offer twelve young bullocks;” and again on the third day eleven bullocks; and again on the fourth day ten bullocks; and on the fifth day nine bullocks, and so decreasing. Surely all this not only has meaning, but the meaning points to the fact that there will not be the sustainment of the same devotedness as at the first. Nevertheless the purpose of God never fails. Hence therefore we find that on the eighth day “Ye shall offer a burnt-offering, a sacrifice made by fire, of a sweet savour unto Jehovah, one bullock, one ram, and seven lambs.” The eighth day brings us here no more than a single witness, indicating what was outside the earth. It might seem extraordinary at first sight that the eighth day should be less than the seven days. During the seven days the number never came down so low as to one bullock. But the reason seems to be this, that in Numbers we have the testimony and service of Christ on earth, and consequently no more than a witness to what is outside and above the earth. It points to another and heavenly scene, which was not properly the subject of the book. It is therefore but a solitary witness to heavenly things, not their introduction in power.
In Numbers 30 there is another and a very different exhibition of the truth of God. It is a question of divers relationships. Here we meet with a very blessed principle. The order of relationship depends on the one to whom we are related. It is He that governs, It is not God’s arrangement in these matters to rest the weight on the weaker one, who is in the place of responsibility, but on the higher, who is expected to have strength and wisdom.
The first case of which we read in the chapter is, “If a man vow a vow unto Jehovah, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.’’ Do we not know who this is? We know the One who never needs to recall a word: indeed, there is none other. His word stands; we can trust it without fear.
But it is not so with the woman, the weaker vessel. “If a woman also vow a vow unto Jehovah, and bind herself by a bond, being in her father’s house in her youth; and her father hear her vow, and her bond wherewith she hath bound her soul, and her father shall hold his peace at her: then all her vows shall stand, and every bond wherewith she hath bound her soul shall stand.” This is our position, as it was that of Israel. They held the place of the woman according to the type of this chapter, as the man was Jehovah-Messiah, no doubt, in its full import. But it was Jehovah that spoke, and His words stood; Jehovah-Messiah was the unfailing One of Israel. Many a rash word they said; many a foolish vow they made. How did He treat all? In two ways. He acted in the power of His own grace, and therefore disallowed what was wrong, not binding the foolish vow on her who spoke so unadvisedly with her lips. He allowed her words to pass away, to be broken, to have no binding efficacy. How gracious is the Lord! On the other hand, dealing in His governmental wisdom, He might allow the foolish to prove her own folly; and so He did. This too has been true of Israel. He has permitted that His people should feel the consequences of what they said in their pride. But assuredly the day is coming when He will act in the fulness of His grace, and all that is foolish will be as unheard, unregistered, and blotted out for ever.
The same thing is true, viewed in another relationship. Supposing it was not a father with a child, but a husband (verses 6-8): in this case all depended on the husband. How perfectly this applies, whether you look at Israel or the church, need not be enlarged on. All our blessedness depends upon Him to whom we belong. At the same time in His government He may allow us to feel our own want of wisdom and of waiting upon Him.
On the other hand, where we hear of a widow or one divorced, plainly either is a person out of relationship, and there all stands (verse 9). But this is not the relation of the Christian or of the church, if we believe the scriptures. Israel may be a widow, and may be viewed as divorced too, but never the church, the bride of Christ. For us we know the marriage is yet future; and such is the way in which scripture views it. Thus you see the power of full grace remains in the hands of our Bridegroom. We have the position of children, and our Father therefore acts in the fulness of His love. We have the place of being the bride, but not yet married. It rests in His hands to use in perfect grace. It is not so with Israel. Therefore, we find another case of twofold dealing on Jehovah’s part — a severity on the one hand which does not forget their folly, but judges it; and on the other hand full mercy in remitting according to His own love. Jehovah, as He has executed the one, will assuredly display the other.
In Numbers 31, on which I may say but very few words, we have a blessed principle already alluded to briefly, but now acted on. We saw that Balaam could not separate God from Israel. We saw that he did in fact separate to a certain extent Israel from God. God could not allow His servant to pass away before he saw this disgrace completely blotted out. How was this done? “Avenge,” says Jehovah, “the children of Israel of the Midianites, afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people.” It would not have suited the grace of God towards His servant to leave a painful thought on his heart now that he was about to be gathered to his fathers or fall asleep. “And Moses spake unto the people, saying, Arm some of yourselves unto the war, and let them go against the Midianites and avenge Jehovah of Midian.” Is not this perfection? When Jehovah spoke, He told His servant to avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites; but when Moses spoke, he told them to avenge Jehovah of the Midianites. How exactly Jehovah secures His own glory, and in grace to His people! Jehovah thought of the children of Israel, and the children of Israel would think of Jehovah. It was one common interest — Jehovah and Israel had at heart one and the same thing. This indeed was the true and mighty grace of God, altogether reversing what the sin of man was seen to have accomplished. As they fell under the power of the snare, it might have seemed that they must be separated from Jehovah. But no; the link must be riveted, never to be broken.
Accordingly the expedition did not require any great force: it was no question of having all Israel marshalled now. A small body would suffice. It must be a select company, not the bravest chosen as such, but some of every tribe must have part in it. It is a question of avenging Jehovah of the Midianites, and the tribes would share it between them equally. Anything that would tend to bring in Israel as a whole would defeat this identification with His name by giving prominence to them, even if it did not wear the look of national feeling or personal vengeance. Neither must be now; all must be done holily in His name. It must be Jehovah’s vengeance. Accordingly therefore it is ordered after a sacred fashion, as well as with a select band from each tribe. “So there were delivered out of the thousands of Israel, a thousand of every tribe, twelve thousand armed for war” — a small body comparatively to deal with a formidable people. “And Moses sent them to the war, a thousand of every tribe, them and” — whom? A captain? some chosen captain? — Joshua? No; “Phinehas the son of Eleazar the priest, to the war, with the holy instruments, and the trumpets to blow in his hand.” The leader must be holy, and with no lack of holy instruments. The trumpets must be there for Jehovah’s ears as well as Israel’s. The result could not be doubted; and at once the issue of the fight is brought before us.
Further, we see that Jehovah lays down most wholesome principles as to the division of the spoil. A certain reserve is made. The principle is this, that nothing could be used by Israel which did not go through the fire. All for them must pass through the scrutinizing judgment of God. Besides, the people who had not fought were to have their share as well as those who had. It was reserved for David to decide that they must all share alike. This ordinance awaited another day. But here it was not according to the full grace of that day. It was a season of goodness, and nothing more.
From the next chapter (Num. 32) it would seem that this very victory suggested a hasty thought to the heads of some tribes of Israel. They liked uncommonly the land that was conquered, and desired to remain on the wrong side of the Jordan. Moses was grieved at this. Nevertheless, after consulting, he yields to them; only he insists that they must help their brethren. Meanwhile whatever may be the allotment that they had chosen for themselves (and certainly they must prove how unwise it is to choose thus, instead of accepting Jehovah’s choice), they must none the less share the conflicts of the people in Canaan.
Numbers 33 testifies to another and beautiful truth, Jehovah’s remembrance of all the past, of all our journeyings, of all the scenes of difficulty through our weakness, and even worse occasionally too, of solemn judgments. And here we have it rehearsed. It was good to think of His ways with them, — good for those who were about to enter on a new scene to look back on every step of the journey. It is thus far from being an unimportant chapter, or, as it might seem to the superficia1, a mere dry list of names. There is no part of scripture which has not a divine as well as moral purpose in it.
The next chapter (Num. 34) presents the persons that were to divide the inheritance. This introduces in Numbers 35 the singular institution of Levitical cities, some of which were reserved for such as might have been guilty of shedding blood. If done with malice prepense, there could be no shelter for the perpetrator in such an asylum. They could serve only as a prison whence he must be taken and judged in due time. But there were many cases in which death might ensue where there was no malice. On the one hand God would not make light of the bloodshed; on the other He would not merge the guiltless in the class of murderers.
The chapter then sets forth in a vivid manner what was ever before God’s own eyes — the coming act of blood-guiltiness, and the divine dealings with Israel in respect of it. I need not say many words as to this. Israel have stained themselves with blood, and stand charged before God with the slaying of their own Messiah. The grace of God acts, and the judgment of God also. Both are true, and both true of Israel. As there were those that have slain Him willingly, so they have borne their judgment and will yet more. But there were those for whom grace pleaded, and assuredly not without an answer; for the very One whose blood was shed cried to God from the cross in intercession for them: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” How mighty and how wondrous the reckoning of grace! To this the Spirit of God answered when He led Peter to say, “I know that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers.” And thus there were those who found not only shelter, but having found it are there kept of God. Nay, more: in a certain providential sense it applies even to those not brought out of the place of the Jew into that of the Christian, which last does not appear here; for He would not have the membership of Christ’s body thus anticipated.
But we have an important type of the Jew’s place on earth. The man who was sheltered in the city of refuge, because of the stain of blood, who instead of being put to death for it found a temporary sojourn there, looked forward to the time when he might return. This limitation to his stay is given here. It only occurs in the book of Numbers. The slayer (it is said) “shall abide in it unto the death of the high priest, which was anointed with the holy oil. But if the slayer shall at any time come without the border of the city of his refuge, whither he was fled; and the revenger of blood find him without the borders of the city of his refuge, and the revenger of blood kill the slayer; he shall not be guilty of blood: because he should have remained in the city of his refuge until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest the slayer shall return into the land of his possession “
This remains for Israel. That people is the slayer of blood now in the city of refuge. As long as Christ is exercising His priesthood according to the type here spoken of, as long as He is the anointed Priest who “ever liveth to make intercession” in the presence of God, so long the slayer must remain out of the land of his possession. The Jew will never return as accredited of God while Christ carries on His priesthood as now within the rent veil on high. But we know well that our Lord Jesus is coming back again. We know therefore that He is going to terminate the form9 in which He now exercises His priesthood, which is typically represented by the death of the high priest that was anointed with oil. The death of the actual high priest of that day typifies the close of that character of priesthood in which our Lord now acts.
Thus it is that, when the Lord will no longer be fulfilling the type of Aaron within the veil, when He will come forth as the great Melchisedek, there will be not a new ground but a new form and character of His priesthood, no longer as now intercession founded on blood only, but what corresponds with the bringing forth of bread and wine, as the priest of the Most High God, possessor of heaven and earth (the millennial name of God). When that day comes, the slayer will then no longer require to be protected in the city of refuge, but return to the land of his inheritance.
In Numbers 36 we have a further point which winds up the account of the daughters of Zelophehad. As the former notice honoured their faith, so this acts as a guard, and stamps order on the matter, securing the glory of God but avoiding confusion among men; for the tribes of Israel must be duly kept. On the one hand it was according to God’s goodness that the daughters should inherit if there were no son; on the other hand it could not be permitted that the inheritance should pass out of the tribe of their fathers. This was provided against here as the other was before. Thus the whole book abounds from first to last with the reiterated, continual, and perfect proof of God’s loving care for His people on the earth.
1 It is grievous to think how the ignorant or careless statements of good men furnish weapons to the ill-minded against the word of God. Bp. Patrick, if I mistake not, inferred from the ratio of the first-born to all the males that each Jewish family must have consisted of forty-two boys on the average, though he afterwards reduced it more than half. Such a mistake has been greedily re-echoed by rationalists abroad and at home, especially by Bishop Colenso in Pt. i. chap. xiv. But these reckoners, so ready to impugn Scripture, have overlooked several elements which the record itself furnishes, so as to reduce the number to an average of at most eight children, boys and girls, in each family, which no man can pretend to be excessive. For, first, the heads of families — first-born fathers, grandfathers, or great grandfathers — are clearly not included here any more than in the death of the first-born throughout Egypt, but only those who were unmarried members of the house. Secondly, those numbered were not merely eldest sons, but strictly first-born males. Supposing the daughter to be the first-born in equal ratio, this would reduce the number one half, as the former would to one-third. Next, there is a further reduction necessary when we take the mean number of children who survive to the twentieth year; for ordinarily not a few of the firstborn die before then. Lastly, the first-born under a month must be excluded. Hence, instead of forty-two sons, the first reduces (say in round numbers) to fourteen; the second to seven; the third and fourth to less than four, if we rate the first-born surviving at two-thirds for the whole period, and take the first-born under a month into account. The reader will find the minute proof of this drawn out in “The Exodus of Israel,” chap. 6.
2 It matters little comparatively for the typical truth conveyed whether tachash means a seal or a badger. It was certainly an external protective skin, sufficiently strong (as in Ezek. 16:30) for women’s shoes to be made of it. The Septuagint translate it by
ὑακίνθινα, as Aquila by
ἰάνθινα, and understood a peculiar colour to be meant. But Gesenius rightly, I think, decides against this, as do most, though it be not clear what animal is meant.
3 The word seems properly to mean crimson. (Cf. Matt. 27:28 John 19:5)
4 Let me here cite one of those coincidences which are so natural in a writer who was himself an eye-witness, but wholly improbable for a mere compiler, however upright, to think of at a later day; for the more minute, the less is the likelihood that such details would be noticed. “In the second chapter of the book of Numbers the writer describes the divisions of the twelve tribes into four camps, the number of each tribe, and the total number in each camp. He fixes the positions each was to take round the tabernacle, and the order of their march; and he directs that the tabernacle, with the camp of the Levites, should not set forward between the second and third camps. But in the tenth chapter occurs what seems at first a direct contradiction to this; for it is said that after the first camp had set forward, then the tabernacle was taken down; and the sons of Gershon, and the sons of Merari, set forward, bearing the tabernacle, and afterwards the second camp, or standard, of the children of Reuben. But this apparent contradiction is reconciled a few verses after, when we find that though the less sacred parse of the tabernacle, the outside tent and its apparatus, set out between the first and second camp; yet the sanctuary, or holy of holies, with its furniture, the ark and the altar, did not set out till after the second camp; as the direction required. And the reason of the separation is assigned, that those who bore the outside tabernacle might set it up, and thus prepare for the reception of the sanctuary against it came. Would a forger or compiler who lived when these marches had wholly ceased, and the Israelites had fixed in the land of their inheritance, have thought of such a circumstance as this?” (Dean Graves’ Works, ii. p. 49.)
5 Dr. Davidson’s Introd. O. T. i. 70.
6 The use of Elohim and Jehovah here is very notable, as absurd on the document hypothesis as instructive to the believer in the unity of the book and in the divine inspiration of its writer. This is immensely confirmed by Balaam’s use of Elion (Most High) and Shaddai (Almighty) in his last two prophecies (Num. 24) when he did not seek enchantments. Are we to fall back on the clumsy device of one, two, or more writers to account for these divine titles, instead of seeking their motive in internal considerations?
7 We must carefully remember that the word “Jehovah,” printed in italics, has no right to a place in verse 16. “And he said unto Balak, Stand here by thy burnt-offering while I meet yonder.”
8 Some few follow in book 3 (Ps. 84 - 88)
9 Heb. 7:24 might seem to clash with this; but it is not so really for as no one questions that Christ continues for ever, so the apostle asserts that His priesthood cannot be transferred, like the Aaronical one, from father to son. He has the priesthood intransmissible (
ἀπαράβατον). It is a denial of successional transfer, not of change of form according to His grace and wisdom in the age to come.