Numbers 15
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics

I. HE TREATS THE FUTURE AS THE PRESENT. The people had been very near to a land of habitations, and to a time when the requirements of this passage would have been close upon them. That time is now moved into a distant future; but it is equally certain to come, and the requirements are equally practical. The land of promise was Israel's inheritance, and to become its possession, even though Amalekite and Canaanite had just been victorious. God can speak of things that are not as if they were. And after so much gloom as the previous chapter presents, such a rebellious, unmanageable spirit and ominous outlook, there was need of something bright, such as we find in the state of things which these ordinances of offering imply.

II. HE POINTS TO A FUTURE FULL OF SATISFACTION TO THE PEOPLE. It will be approved by them as according with his prediction to Moses: "a good land and a large, a land flowing with milk and honey." They shall have cause for all manner of voluntary offerings over and above the necessary offerings for sin. Fulfilled desires would lead to the fulfillment of vows. The very mention of these sacrifices as possible indicated that Israel would be rich in flocks and herds, in corn and wine and oil. There would be reason for much gratitude in the heart, and consequent gifts of thanksgiving. And thus, in spite of all that may be a cause of despondency in the Christian's present outlook, there will yet be cause of thanksgiving to him. We must not judge the future from our present humiliation and almost vanished hopes, but from the greatness of God's power and purposes. He sees the rich, bright future of his people even when they do not.

III. HE COUNTS ON THE EXISTENCE OF A THANKFUL SPIRIT. There would be abundant cause for such a spirit, and so it was right to provide for any effects that might appear. In spite of all present murmuring and ingratitude, in spite of all sullen compliance with the compulsion to turn back into the wilderness, there would surely some day be a thankful spirit, a devout recognition of God in the midst of prosperity. Thus we may take it that there is something of prophecy, something of reasonable expectation, as well as of appointed duty in the commands here given. Just as the regulations for the Nazarite (chapter 6) indicated an expectation that there would be much of the feeling leading men to the Nazarite vow, so here there is an expectation of much in the way of free-will offerings.

IV. These free-will offerings must be joined with offerings from the corn, the oil, and the wine TO MAKE ALL INTO ONE COMPLETE AND ACCEPTABLE SACRIFICE. The desire to do something acceptable to God needs to be directed by a knowledge of what is acceptable. The thankful soul will ever be glad to learn his will. No offering to him is worth anything unless it be a cheerful one; but the most cheerful gifts may be nullified for the want of other needed qualities. Hence there should ever be a careful pondering of God's will in all our offerings to him, so that they may be good and perfect according to the measure of human ability. When most of all we are free agents, then most of all should we look to be directed by necessary commandments from on high.

V. THE PROVISION FOR STRANGLES. The land of promise was to be attractive and beneficent to them as well as to Israel. They also would share in its advantages, and be stirred to a corresponding acknowledgment. Thus ever and anon does God raise his warning against all disposition to exclusiveness. He had the case of the stranger and proselyte ever before him. A word of hope this for Hobab, whose heart may have been cast down within him, when he saw how contemptuously Moses had been treated of late. - Y.

The treatment of foreigners among the Jews one sign of the impartiality of God. For -

1. They were all "of one blood" (Acts 17:26).

2. The Israelites were "strangers and sojourners with God" in his own land (Leviticus 25:23), as we all are upon earth (1 Chronicles 29:15; 1 Peter 2:11).

3. All are involved in sin. The guilt of the favoured Israelites was greater than that of heathen strangers (Romans 2:6-12).

4. All are included in the one salvation (Romans 3:21-30). For further illustrations see outline on Numbers 9:14. - P.

I. A DALLY OFFERING, or if not daily, be practically daily. God has spoken so far of free-will offerings, but here is one connected with such a frequent and necessary act as the eating of bread. There are occasions for free-will offerings when evident mercies and peculiar gains prompt to something special in the way of acknowledgment; but men are only too prone to forget the common and daily mercies which in reality are greatest of all. Where we abound in forgetting, God most abounds in reminding. The time of eating bread was an appointed opportunity for acknowledging his daily goodness. The manna was so evidently miraculous, that very little was needed to remind Israel how entirely it was produced without their intervention. It was not the sort of food they would have cultivated. They took it, not that they liked it, but it was the only thing to be got. But bread is a thing on which man spends much care. It goes through so many processes before it reaches his mouth that he easily exaggerates his share in the production of it. Sowing and reaping, grinding and baking, help to hide the good hand of God behind them. Hence the giving of the first from every piece of dough was a deliberate and frequent recognition of dependence on God for the bread in Canaan, as much as for the manna in the wilderness.

II. A DOMESTIC OFFERING. Thus religion was brought into the house to sanctify a common homely duty. There was something to excite the curiosity of children. It was an opportunity of explaining to them, from whose loving-kindness came their daily bread; teaching them lessons of dependence and gratitude in the seed-time and the harvest, by the mill and the oven. Contrast with this the melancholy picture by Jeremiah of the children gathering the wood, the fathers kindling the fire, and the women kneading dough to make cakes to the queen of heaven (Deuteronomy 28:5; Nehemiah 10:37; Psalm 104:14, 15; Jeremiah 7:18; Ezekiel 44:30; Haggai 1:9). - Y.

Some sins are more heinous in the sight of God than others; more heinous in their own nature, or by reason of aggravating circumstances. The distinction is familiar to all. Murder is a sin more heinous in the sight of God and man than petty theft. Armed rebellion against just authority is a greater sin than heedless omission to pay due honour and courtesy to a superior in office. Yet old and familiar as the distinction is, it is one in connexion with which men have often fallen into mischievous error. Hence the value of texts like this in Numbers, which throw light upon it.


1. Some sins are described as sins of ignorance. The reference is to faults that are due to error or inadvertence. We all know, to our cost, how liable we are to these. Never a day passes but we omit duty and commit faults, either because we knew no better, or because we were "off our guard" and stumbled before we were aware. These are sins of infirmity, such as cleave to the best of men in the present life.

2. Other sins are done presumptuously. (Literally, "with a high hand.") The matter is one about which there is no dubiety; the person knows well what is right and what is wrong; knowing this, he deliberately and purposely does the wrong. He offends against light, conviction, conscience. This is presumptuous sin. I have said that the distinction between greater and lesser sins is old and familiar. Turning to any Roman Catholic book of devotion, you will find tables in which are enumerated respectively the "mortal sins" and the "venial sins." That is one way of describing the two classes. I very much prefer the terms employed here in God's word. And the superior wisdom of God is to be seen not only in the fitter terms employed, but also in the absence of any attempt, here or elsewhere in the Bible, to give a tabular enumeration of the sins belonging to either class. For one thing, a correct distribution is impossible. The same act which, in ordinary circumstances, one might deem trivial, may in other circumstances be a most heinous crime; whereas what seems a heinous crime may be found to have been committed in circumstances so extenuating, that you hesitate to pronounce it a crime at all. Besides, the distribution, if it were possible to be made, could only do mischief. It is not good for men to be trying to find out how near they may go to the line which separates sins of infirmity from presumptuous sins, without actually passing over. The Bible refuses to give help in that sort of study. It indicates the quality which aggravates offences, so that we may learn to fear it and keep as far off from it as we can.


1. When the party - whether it be the congregation or an individual Israelite - who has sinned inadvertently becomes aware of the sin, a sin-offering is to be presented with the accustomed rites, and the sin will be forgiven (verses 24, 25, 27, 28). The point to be noted here is, that however much the sin may have been due to mere ignorance or inadvertence, the law demanded satisfaction; that is to say, Transgression of God's law is transgression still, though done through mere heedlessness or error. Ignorance and heedlessness may extenuate, but they do not justify; nor do they exempt from suffering the consequences of evil doing. Nor ought this to be deemed strange or harsh. The same principle prevails in human governments. A transgressor does not escape the penalties annexed to his acts because he did not know they were forbidden, or because he acted recklessly. It is a mischievous abuse of the distinction between sins, if occasion is taken from it to make light of any sin. Remember that all sin is, in its own nature, mortal. Paul persecuted "ignorantly and in unbelief;" yet, for having persecuted, he reckoned himself the chief of sinners.

2. As for the presumptuous transgressor, the law holds out to him no hope (verses 30, 31). The reference, no doubt, is, in the first instance, to deliberate violations of the Mosaic constitution - the refusal to accept circumcision, or celebrate the Passover, or observe the Sabbatic rest. For such offences no sacrifice was provided. The person forfeited his place in the covenant society. But this part of the law, like the former part, has an ultimate reference to offences considered as strictly moral. It suggests lessons regarding all deliberate and presumptuous sins. It is a most striking and significant fact, that for such sins the law of Moses provided no sacrifice. What are we to make of this?

(1) It may remind us that there is such a thing as "a sin unto death," and for which "there remaineth no more sacrifice" (Hebrews 10:26, 27; 1 John 5:16). We believe, indeed, that no penitent, however heinous his sin, will be turned away from God's door unforgiven; but there are dark admonitory texts of Scripture, of which this in Numbers is one, which distinctly warn us that God's mercy will not be trifled with; that there is a point to which, if men go, in resisting the testimony of God's word and Spirit in their consciences, the Spirit will withdraw and give them over to hardness and impenitence.

(2) But there is a brighter side of the matter. "By Christ all that believe are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses" (Acts 13:39). David's great crime was a "presumptuous sin." The law prescribed no sacrifice for it. The law could suggest to him no hope. What then? He remembered the name of the Lord which was enshrined in the Pentateuch side by side with the law (Exodus 34:6). He confessed and was forgiven. - In Psalm 19 there occur a remarkable succession of meditations and prayers which, to all appearance, were suggested originally by this law in Numbers, and which may be taken as expressing the thoughts and exercises to which the study of it gave birth in the soul of David. At all events, they so perfectly indicate the practical use to be made of the law that they cannot be too earnestly commended to your consideration. "Who can understand his errors? (Who can make sure that he has noted, or can remember and confess his sins in this kind?) Cleanse thou me from secret faults." "Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression." - B.

I. THE SERIOUSNESS OF GOD'S EXPECTATIONS. God gave to Israel many and elaborate commandments, in the mode of obeying' which he left nothing to personal discretion. Hence the work of obedience was often a difficult and always a careful one, and sometimes the people might be tempted to say, "Surely this minute and unvarying compliance in outward things cannot be seriously intended." But everything God commands has a reason, even though we see it not. God hides reasons in order that the obedience of faith may be complete. An Israelite quite conceivably might say, "Surely I am not expected to remember all these commandments in all their details." The answer is, that though the commandments might not all be remembered, yet every one of them was important. And so we find that God made it a dangerous, even a deadly thing, knowingly and willfully to disobey them. He has high aims with respect to his people, far higher than they can at present appreciate, and this is the surest way of getting great results. He may seem to be imposing intolerable burdens, but he is really leading us onward in strength and capacity until we shall be able to bear the burdens. Hence the large demands which Christ also makes on his disciples. He came to fulfill the law. His people are not only to do more than others, but much more, and in many ways. Whatever be provided for in the way of pardon and expiation, the standard must not be lowered in the least. God has constituted man to reach great attainments, and he will enable him to reach them, if only the proper means be taken.

II. HIS REMEMBRANCE OF HUMAN INFIRMITY. It is no real contradiction, to them who will consider, that God meant his commandments to be kept, yet knew they would be oftentimes broken. As he was serious in giving the commandments, h, wished the people to be serious in trying to keep them, and serious also in asking why they were not able to keep them. He provided for the commandments being broken. While serious in expectations, he was also considerate and encouraging. He who knows what his people will one day be able to do, knows full well how little they can do at present. He is really more considerate of feeble men than they are of each other. The parable of the servant forgiven of his master, yet refusing to forgive his fellow-servant, finds its application only too often in the difference between God's tender treatment of man, and man's harsh treatment of his fellow-man. God makes allowance for the difficulty of turning away from inveterate habits. He makes allowance for what we know by daily experience is a great infirmity of men, sheer forgetfulness. He considers how many suffer from defective instruction, bad example, and early orphanhood. He can say far more for us than with our utmost skill we can plead for ourselves. He knows all the difficulties we have, in getting at the knowledge and practice of his truth. What comfort could we possibly have in the midst of all our differing sects, confessions, and ceremonies, did we not think of God looking kindly and patiently on the sins of ignorance, and remembering that we know only in part? It was Paul's great comfort to feel that the cruelties of his persecuting days had been committed ignorantly and in unbelief.

III. HIS STRICT REQUIREMENT OF EXPIATION. They were not allowed to say, "We knew it not; therefore it will not be required from us." Evil done in ignorance does not cease to be evil because done in ignorance. Whatever is commanded ought to be done, and if omitted there is loss somewhere in God's universe because of the omission. We must not plead ignorance of the commandment, for the reason of that ignorance lies with man, and not with God. It may not lie with the particular transgressor, but still it lies with man, and therefore the transgression must be confessed and atoned for; and when we humble ourselves in confession of sin committed and service omitted, there is need that we should dwell with much self-examination and seeking for light on the things that have been left undone through ignorance. What we have done that we ought not to have done is much more discoverable than what ought to have been done, yet has been left undone. Many conscientious, earnest, and enlightened Christians have been transgressors through ignorance. Prayer for the doing of God's will on earth as it is done in heaven must be accompanied by an incessant seeking for the knowledge of his will. Assuredly we suffer by our ignorance in this matter, even though, in a certain sense and to a certain extent, this ignorance cannot be helped. This provision here made for atonement, this prophecy, as it were, that many transgressions unconsciously committed would be discovered in due time, is a reminder to us how much we may still have to discover of God's will concerning us. Much as we may know, and much as we may do, there may be large fields of obedience where we have not taken a single step. The great essentials, of course, if we be Christians at all, we cannot be ignorant of, but it is quite possible to know them, yet be ignorant of other things God would also have us know. We are not to look for the laws of life in Scripture only; God has put there such things as are not to be found in nature and the dealings of Ms common providence. We must look for his will in every place where intimations of it are to be found, and be quick in discovering what has been revealed to others. Mark these words of Joseph Sturge: - "It seems to be the will of him who is infinite in wisdom that light upon great subjects should first arise, and be gradually spread through the faithfulness of individuals in acting up to their own convictions." - Y.

I. THE GUILT OF PRESUMPTUOUS SINS. The transgressor sinneth "with a high hand" (Hebrews). It is not easy exactly to define sins of presumption or deliberate disobedience, for which there was no expiation by sacrifice. Some crimes involved capital punishment (Leviticus 20:1, 2, 10; Exodus 21:14; Deuteronomy 17:12), or were followed by fatal judgments by God (Leviticus 17:10; Leviticus 20:4-6). The impossibility of drawing up a complete schedule of willful, presumptuous sins suggests a caution. For their heinous guilt is described by the term "reproacheth the Lord," i.e., blasphemes God in word or act. A presumptuous sinner reproaches God in four ways. He acts as though

(1) his commands were harsh;

(2) his authority was of no account;

(3) his favour was to be little prized;

(4) his threats were to be still less feared (Deuteronomy 29:19, 20).

Such guilt is aggravated under the law of the gospel, inasmuch as God's commands, authority, favour, and threats are invested with greater weight and sanctity through the revelation of his will and his love in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 2:1-3).


1. Under the law there was no sacrifice to expiate for such sins, but fatal punishment at the hand of man or of God himself.

2. Under the gospel a sacrifice even for willful sin is provided. But as "the condemnation" is for unbelief, the neglect of the Saviour and his sacrifice is the most terrible, though a most common presumptuous sin, for which "there remaineth no more sacrifice" (Hebrews 10:26-29). There is a sin "unto death," which "shall not be forgiven," &c. (Matthew 12:32; 1 John 5:16).

3. The difficulty of exactly deciding, either under the law or the gospel, what sins are beyond the power of expiation, and expose us to be "cut off," adds to their danger. All sins are like poisons, fatal if remedies are not applied. But if some are certainly fatal, and we know not which, what need for faith in the Physician, and prayer that we may be kept from all sins so as to be guarded from presumptuous sins among them (Psalm 19:12-14). - P.

Disobedience to the commands of God is ranged under two classes. First, that which has just been considered, disobedience through ignorance; secondly, disobedience from presumption, a bold, conscious, reckless defiance of God and following out of the promptings of self. God indicates that such conduct must be met in a corresponding way. "That soul shall be cut off from among his people, utterly cut off." Notice that while God supposed the case of the whole people sinning ignorantly, he does not make a similar supposition with regard to presumptuous sin. Unanimity in an open and deliberate defiance of God seems to be impossible. It is only too possible, however, that single men should be guilty in this matter, and an illustration of presumptuous sin, from actual life, immediately follows. The people were to be left without excuse for saying that they were in any doubt as to this dangerous sin. Where death was the punishment, the offence could not be too clearly indicated. Let us consider then the doom of the presumptuous sinner, as illustrated by that of the Sabbath-breaker.

I. THE COMMANDMENT WITH RESPECT TO THE SABBATH HAD BEEN PUT IN PECULIAR PROMINENCE. It stands among those ten solemn announcements of God's will, with respect to which we may say that all other commandments existed for them. Surely to sin against any of these was to sin presumptuously. It is reckoned the business of all men to know all the laws under which they live - ignorance is not allowed for a plea, - but with respect to the ten commandments, special means had been taken to impress them on the minds and memories of the people. Even before the fourth commandment had been formally announced, the double provision of manna on the sixth day had helped to give a peculiar significance to the seventh. So it may be said, if we are disobedient in respect of those requirements mentioned repeatedly and held out prominently by Christ and his apostles, we are sinning presumptuously. Who can deny that continued unbelief in the face of pressing requirements for faith is a presumptuous sin? Who can deny that where love and unselfish service are kept back from God and men there is presumptuous sin? Such sins persisted in, against all light, instruction, warning, and appeal, will end in a cutting off from the people, a terrible exclusion from all those gracious rewards which come to the faithful and obedient. Presumptuous sins strike at the very foundation of the throne of God.

II. THERE WAS EVERYTHING TO CALL THE ATTENTION OF THIS TRANSGRESSOR IN THE FACT THAT OTHERS WERE KEEPING THE SABBATH. None could come into the Israelite camp and mistake the Sabbath for some other day, just as none could enter an English town on the day of rest and mistake it for a working day. When the man went out gathering sticks, there was something fresh at every step he took to remind him that he was transgressing a commandment of God; a dozen steps from his own door was enough for this. He went into sin with his eyes open and his selfish will determined to disobey God. Thus also there is presumptuous sin in despising those requirements of Christ which are not only plainly and repeatedly stated by him and his apostles, but carded out, from a sincere heart, in the daily practice of many who rejoice to call themselves his servants. Every Christian who by his life and the results of it shows that in his judgment certain requirements of Christ are all important, becomes thereby a witness to convict others of presumptuous sin. To act on the principle that faith in Christ is not absolutely necessary to salvation, righteousness, and eternal life, is to run counter to the life and emphatic confession of many in all generations of the Christian era. Every life in which Christ is manifested ruling and guiding is a fresh repetition of his great requirements, a fresh evidence of presumptuous sin on the part of those who neglect these requirements.

III. THE SIN APPEARS ALL THE GREATER FROM THE ACT ITSELF BEING SO TRIFLING. The first thought of many on reading the narrative may be, "What severity for such a little offense!" But the more it is looked at the greater the offence appears. There would have been more to say for the man if the temptation had come from some great thing. If a fortune or a kingdom had been in question, then there would have been some plausibly sufficient motive for a great transgression; but to break such a commandment, to run counter to the conduct of the whole camp for a handful of sticks, does it not show how proud-hearted the man was, how utterly careless of all and any of God's regulations? Such a man would have turned to idolatry and profanity on the one hand, or to theft and even murder on the other, at very slight provocation. It was a little thing for Esau to crave a mess of pottage, but it deservedly lost him his birthright when he valued it so little. Thus have men sinned against their Saviour for the paltriest trifles. Peter moves our sympathy when he denies Jesus, for life is dear when closely threatened, and we consider ourselves lest we also he tempted; but when Judas sells his master, and such a master, for thirty pieces of silver, how abominable the act appears! Yet men are constantly turning from Jesus on considerations as paltry and sordid. They will not be religious, because such continual carefulness is required in little things. This man sinned a great and daring sin against God; he was dragged in shame before the whole congregation, and then stoned outside the camp. And what had he by way of set-off? A few sticks. If it was a little thing to do, it was just as little a thing to be left undone. Small as it was, it showed the state of the man's heart, that corroding and hopeless leprosy within, which left no other course but to cut him off from the people.

IV. THUS WE ARRIVE AT THE FULL MEASURE OF THE MAN'S INSULT TO THE MAJESTY OF GOD. We see in what way he reproaches the Lord and despises his word. If this man had gone before Moses, when with the tables in his hands he came fresh from Sinai, and if he had heaped contumely on the messenger, and spat upon the tables, he could not have done more then to show contempt than he did by the gathering of those few sticks on the day which God had claimed for his own. Human governments, with all their imperfections, look upon deliberate defiance of their authority as a thing to be punished severely; what, then, must be done where there is a deliberate defiance of the authority of God? A terrible doom awaits those who despise and ridicule God's ordinances of right and wrong. Though it may not be swift and sudden, it will assuredly be certain and complete. Those who mourn their inability to keep the law of God are separated in his sight from those who contemn that law, far as the east is from the west. Be it ours to feel with David, "rivers of waters run down my eyes, because they keep not thy law" (Psalm 119:136), and not as the fool who says in his heart, There is no God (Psalm 53:1; Psalm 19:12-14). - Y.


1. There was need of something special to call attention to this point. Those commandments which concerned himself directly he had to fence in a special way. Commandments against filial impiety, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, covetousness, these concerned man directly, and through him they concerned God; man, therefore, might be trusted to help in vindicating these commands. But those against polytheism, idolatry, profanity, and Sabbath-breaking concerned God directly and man only indirectly. Man, therefore, might not perceive the hurt, even though it was real and most serious. Thus it became needful for God to deal in a specially stern and impressive way with the Sabbath-breaker. His people must be made to perceive and bear in mind that he meant the seventh day to be a holy day. It was as much sacrilege to spend it in common occupations as it was to defile the ark in the holy place.

2. There was need to arrest the attention of such as kept the Sabbath in a negative rather than a positive way. God gave the Sabbath, not for idleness, but for that most valuable of all rest which is gained in quiet, undisturbed communion with God, and meditation on all his wonderful works. Those who employed the Sabbath in solemn and devout approaches to the God of the covenant were delivered from temptation to break the Sabbath. Filled with the fullness of God, there would be no room for base, transgressing thoughts. But no commandment could bring the unwilling heart to God. It might do something to keep the work of the common day away from the hands; it could do nothing to keep the thoughts of the common day out of the heart. The heart was to be sought; it could not be forced, being in its nature beyond force. Many, therefore, would keep the day negatively, in utter idleness, and this idleness itself tended to disobedience. The doing of little things would seem practically the same as doing nothing. So men had to be taught, by terrible examples, not to trifle with holy things. If a man thoughtlessly touches things dangerous to physical life, his thoughtlessness will not deliver him from fatal consequences. If a man sports with poisons, or moves carelessly among machinery, he is very likely to lose his life; so men who trifled with the Sabbath were in great peril. Safety, progress, approval, blessedness, were for those who obeyed from the heart. But those who through heedlessness of the heart disobeyed with the hand had no right to complain when death outside the camp awaited them.

II. THIS SOLEMN VINDICATION HAS AN IMPORTANT BEARING ON THE CHRISTIAN DAY OF REST. This is not the place to take up even a fragment of the interminable discussion on the obligation of the Sabbath. But is not the very fact of such a discussion evidence that the lapse of the obligation is by no means a tiring clearly and easily to be seen?

1. This solemn vindication hints to us that it is a prudent thing to be on the safe side. Thus we may both escape great dangers and secure great blessings. To spend the day of rest just as we please is a claim, not of conscience, but of self-will. It cannot be pretended that ceasing from work one day in seven is a hurt to one's self or to the world. Practically, all Christians confess the need of a day of rest. If God so blessed one day in seven to those who knew him as he might be known in the obscurities and distances of the Jewish economy, is it not reasonable to expect that in the fuller light and nearer approach of God in Christ Jesus, a seventh day of rest, rightly used, may be the means of the greatest blessing. We are now under the perfect law of liberty; and because it is a law of liberty it is all the more a law to the liberated soul. We use not our liberty for an occasion to the flesh; we ought to use it for an occasion to the Spirit. God blessed and hallowed the seventh day, because in it he rested from his work of creation. What a propriety then in keeping the first day of the week, as that in which the Christian's Master rested from temptation, toil, and his victorious struggle with death and Hades!

2. This solemn vindication should make us considerate of all who are called by the ugly name of Sabbatarian. No doubt with regard to the Sabbath there has been much of bigotry, ignorance, and of melancholy misinterpretations of the Scripture; but the weak brother who reads this narrative of the Sabbath-breaker's doom may well be excused if to stronger minds he seems ridiculously precise. Christ will deal with us as severely as his Father dealt with the Sabbath-breaker if we make one of his little ones to offend. It is necessary above all things to be safe. We must not confound the scrupulosity of the weak with the scrupulosity of the Pharisee. That, indeed, is always abominable - attending to little external things, and neglecting the weightier matters of the law. God's service, after all, whether on week day or Sunday, consists in the things we do rather than in those we refrain from doing. God, we may be sure, will take care that the day of rest is not narrowed out of harmony with the liberty of the gospel. As there were matters of necessity provided for under the law, so there is like provision under the gospel. A man of right spirit will not misinterpret the necessities. Jeremiah Horrocks, the young clergyman who first observed the transit of Venus, is said to have made his discovery on the Lord's Day, without allowing it in the least to interfere with his duties in the church. One of the most important principles of his steam-engine flashed into the mind of Watt as he was walking along Glasgow Green one Sunday morning. And it was one Sunday morning that Carey, entering his pulpit in India, received the new regulation prohibiting suttee. He at once sent for his pundit, and completed the translation into Bengalee before night. - Y.

This law is one of the many illustrations of the minute particulars prescribed by the laws of Moses. We find other illustrations in precepts respecting ploughing (Deuteronomy 22:10), sowing (Deuteronomy 22:9), reaping (Leviticus 23:22), threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4), killing (Leviticus 17:13), cooking (Exodus 23:19), clothing (Deuteronomy 22:11), &c. All these laws had certain moral or spiritual significations. The precept respecting the fringes teaches us -


1. To remind us of spiritual truths. The peculiarity of the Jew's dress was a witness to him that he belonged to "a peculiar people" (Deuteronomy 14:2) separated unto God. Possibly the blue colour (cf. Exodus 28:31) was intended to remind him that he belonged to a kingdom of priests.

2. Such memorials are needed because of our treacherous memories, which, like sieves, may let pure water run away, but retain the sediment and rubbish.

3. And they are valuable for the sake of others. The Jews taught that even a blind man must wear the fringe, because others could see it. Strangers may be impressed by our memorial services, even if we are blind to their significance. Our children and their descendants may learn by them. Illustrations - Passover (Exodus 12:24-27); altar and stones on Ebal and Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27:1-8; Joshua 8:30-35). The Lord's Supper, by which we "show Christ's death till he come."


1. Because of our inveterate tendency to exaggerate the importance of what is external. Hence fringes were "enlarged" (Matthew 23:5) and phylacteries were invented (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). The simple supper of the Lord has been developed into the pompous ceremonies of the mass.

2. And thus to stop at the symbol and thereby prevent it. Illustrations - The serpent of brass idolized (2 Kings 18:4); the ark treated as a charm (1 Samuel 4:3).

3. And by so doing to "come short" of the promise of salvation which is "in Christ Jesus," who is "the way, and the truth, and the life." Nevertheless, God does not take away symbolic memorials from us, but throws on us the responsibility of using "as not abusing" them. - P.

I. A NEED TO BE PROVIDED FOR. These numerous and all-important commandments must, if such a thing is possible, be kept continually before the minds of the people. God has already provided for the need, in fact, by appointing an atonement for sins of ignorance. These would be very largely sins of forgetfulness, and so, as prevention is better than cure, it was desirable to guard against forgetfulness. Sins of ignorance, when committed, may be atoned for, but it is better, if such a thing can be, not to commit them at all. Hence God, knowing the natural forgetfulness of the human heart, and bow many cares, pleasures, novelties, and objects of interest there are to draw it away from the consideration of his will, recognizes a need to be provided for in a special way. The will of God, moreover, needed to be constantly remembered. It bears on all our conscious life, and through that in many unknown ways on the unconscious life beneath. There was no action of an Israelite's life but could be done in God's way or in his own. A moment's incaution, and he might step into some great transgression. The law through Moses was a thing of details, and to neglect the least detail was to impair the whole. Evidently this need has still to be provided for. The law through Christ for our life is also one needing to be constantly remembered. There is no moment when it does not stand before us in all its spirituality, and its searching for inward conformity. Nor can we pretend that our hearts are any better, any more in sympathy with God, than those in Israel of old. The human heart under Christ needs to be provided for just as much as under Moses. Thus we may be sure that if God saw the need then, he sees it equally now.

II. GOD'S PROVISION FOR THE NEED. He provided something that should always be before the eye. Fringes or tassels on the garments were ever-present remembrancers. Many times a day the wearer could not but cast his eye on this addition to his garment, and he was at once to recollect that it was something not added by his own fancy, but that he might ask himself the question, "Am I at this moment doing the will of God?" Nor on his own garment only was the fringe of use; every time his eye rested on the garments of others, similarly adorned, he was reminded to treat them in a just, godly, and brotherly fashion, as being also Israelites, holy and privileged as himself (Galatians 6:10). And may we not say that we have reminders, so various, numerous, and increasing, as to the claims of God upon us, that they amount to something like a fringe on our garments? There may be nothing of distinct Divine appointment in many of these reminders, but if they are such as naturally turn our attention to holy things, then the presence of them adds very much to our responsibility. Every Bible that we see; every passage of Scripture set in other writing; every church spire rising to the sky, or even the humblest building given to religious uses; every known minister of religion, or indeed any one known to be a Christian; every grave-yard and burial procession - these and many such have all in them something of the fringes. We cannot afford to despise any helps towards knowledge and obedience. He provided the same memorial for all. He did not count it sufficient there should be any memorial the individual might choose. There was to be no room for individual caprice. The memorial was a fringe, and it was always blue. Thus, while there are many things which may be used to remind us of God's will, there are some especially designed for this end. Those who accept the permanent obligation of the Lord's Supper are brought, on every observance of it, face to face with him whom only too easily we forget. "Do this in remembrance of me." But since all do not accept this obligation, and those who do meet in different ways and with varying frequency, we can hardly find here that which is to correspond in the gospel with the fringes in the law. Is there any one settled and definite thing which Christ gives us now the same for us all? May we not answer from John 16:13: "When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all (the) truth"? Where Moses gave commandments, Christ gave promises, which are only commandments in another form. We have now to do not with a body of positive precepts, to be understood and obeyed in our natural strength, but with a living and life-giving Spirit, and the more we have the life of that Spirit in us, the more we shall be preserved from errors in doctrine, and from omissions, exaggerations, and defects in duty. We are not now called to manufacture lifeless and merely typical observances according to a pattern. Obedience now is to be a growth; and if there is heavenly, pure, and energetic life in us, then we shall not be lacking in strength, beauty, and fruitfulness. What signification, if any, may there be in the colour? Perhaps it is not fanciful to suppose that it may have been chosen as having correspondence with the tint of the sky - something to help in turning the thoughts of the people away from earth to him who dwells on high. Tennyson reminds us ('In Memoriam,' 51.) of

"The sinless years
That breathed beneath the Syrian blue."

III. THE LIMITED USE OF GOD'S PROVISION. It was as good a monitor as could be given in the circumstances, always moving about with the person who had to remember. But remembrance, even supposing it exact and opportune, would only reveal more and more the inevitable weakness in action. What could the fringes help in the doing? Could they turn men from seeking after their own hearts and their own eyes? By the law is the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20). Hence the better their knowledge of the law in its requirements, and the more exact their remembrance, the more painful and depressing would be the consciousness of their own sin. The holier they became in outward compliances, the more would they feel their pollution and their separation of heart from God. If any one ever knew the value of the fringes, we should judge it to have been David, yet read Psalm 119, and notice how he there gathers up his earnest longings for conformity with God's law, and not unfrequently seems to tread the verge of despair. We must have more than mere admonitions, however frequent and earnest, if we are to do God's will and be in truth holy before him. Hence we come back to that work of the Spirit of Christ, putting within us new life, and that love which is the best of all monitors. The fringe above all fringes, the riband made of heaven's own blue, is to have love in the heart. Love never forgets. It has its object ever in its thoughts - first in the morning, last at night, and flitting even through dreams. Fringes may recall words and outward ceremonies, but love discovers fresh applications and larger meanings. Love does with the mere words of commandment as the chemist does with material things, ever discovering in them new combinations, properties, and powers (John 14:23-26). - Y.

I. GOD RECALLED A GREAT DEED. I brought you out of the land of Egypt."'

1. It was deliverance from a bitter bondage. The Israelites had been making light of it of late, but in Egypt it was grievous indeed (Exodus 1:13, 14; Exodus 2:23; Exodus 3:7; Exodus 6:9). So God, by the work of his incarnate Son, delivered the world from a bitter bondage. "Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the whole world." The act of Divine power by which Jesus rose from the grave did not sweep away all difficulties and make life henceforth a path of roses. But it is a great deal to stand on this side, historically, of the sepulcher from which the stone was rolled away. The generations before the resurrection of Jesus were, as we may say, in Egypt, waiting deliverance. The world since that event stands, as it were, delivered. He who brought life and immortality to light destroyed him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and delivered them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (Hebrews 2:14, 15).

2. It was a deliverance worked out entirely by God. "I brought you out, &c." There was no struggle against Pharaoh on the part of the people. We do not see the prisoner within conspiring with the deliverer outside. The bondage was so bitter, the subjection so complete, that the people were not moved to conspiracy and insurrection. We read constantly in history of servile and subject races winning their way to freedom through the bloody struggles of many generations, but these Israelites before Pharaoh were like oxen broken to the plough. They groaned, but they submitted. And in this Egyptian sort of bondage the world was fast before Christ came to deliver. Men groaned under the burdens of life; they were filled with the fruits of sin; they yielded at last to tile grasp of death. All was accepted as a mysterious necessity; men did not protest and struggle against calamity and death. The deliverance is from Jesus, and in it we have no hand. "When we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly" (Romans 5:6). A delivered world was even incredulous as to its deliverance. It could not believe that as by one man came sin and death, so by one also had come conquest over sin, death, and the devil. Thomas, the very disciple, doubts, and before long Paul has to write 1 Corinthians 15. Jesus may say to the world for which he died and rose again, "I brought you out of spiritual Egypt."

3. While the deliverance was being worked out, the Israelites were scarcely conscious of what was being done. They saw the plagues, but only as wonders, stupendous physical calamities. They felt the grasp of Pharaoh alternately tightening and relaxing, but little did they comprehend of that great, significant struggle going on between Jehovah and Pharaoh. They waited, as the prize of victory waits on the athletes while they contend; it knows nothing of the energy and endurance it has evoked. And so it was and is in Christ's redeeming work. It is wonderful to notice how unconscious the world was of that great work which was transacted between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, between the cradle of Jesus and his opened grave. The world looked upon him, and to a large extent it still looks, in any light but the right one. Let us know him first then, and fully in all that the work means, as Deliverer from spiritual Egypt.

II. THE PURPOSE OF THIS GREAT DEED. "I brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God." It is one thing for Israel to be brought out of Egypt; quite another for it to understand why it has been brought out. And so we find the people complaining of the wilderness quite as much as they had done of Egypt. Their expectations pointed in a direction opposite to God's purpose, and never could the wilderness become a better place than Egypt until they did appreciate God's purpose and make it their own. God did not bring them out as one might bring a man out of prison, and then say, "Go where you like." They were brought out of a bitter bondage to enter upon a reasonable service, otherwise the wilderness would prove only an exchange of suffering, not a release from it. In like manner we need to ask how the world may be made better by the redeeming work of Christ. The difference between the state of the world before the death of Christ and since does not look as great from certain points of view as one might expect. A countless host of those for whom he died and rose again nevertheless goes about in a bewilderment and unbelief equal to that of the Israelites in the wilderness. Christ died for us and rose again, that we, rising with him, might live not to ourselves, but to him (Romans 6:4, 10-13, indeed the whole chapter; 12:1; 14:7-9; 1 Corinthians 3:22, 23; 1 Corinthians 10:31; 2 Corinthians 5:15-18; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Ephesians 2:10; Philippians 1:20, 21; Colossians 3:1-3). Deliverance from Egypt is not equivalent to entrance into the promised land. The wilderness is a critical place for us, and all depends on what heed we take to this purpose of God. We must receive the gospel in its integrity. If the full purpose of God becomes our full purpose, then all will be right. Christ died for us, not that we might just escape the penalty and power of sin, as something painful to ourselves, and know the luxury of a washed conscience; not that we might just pass into a perfect blessedness beyond the tomb; but that, becoming pure and blessed, we might engage in the service of God and set forth his glory. We must be pleased with what pleases him. The work of Christ brings us that highest of all joy, to serve God with a perfect heart and a willing mind. - Y.

The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database.
Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by Biblesoft, Inc.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bible Hub
Numbers 14
Top of Page
Top of Page