Numbers 18
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Recent assaults on the priesthood give occasion for a reaffirmation of its prerogatives. Lest this should tend unduly to elate the family of Aaron, the same Divine oracle which confirms to them their distinguished privileges insists on their grave responsibilities.


1. The priest's office is described as "a service of gift," conferred by God himself (Hebrews 5:4).

2. It was confined to the family of Aaron (verse 2).

3. It had special duties into which not even the priests' kindred, the Levites, might intrude (verse 3; Numbers 4:4-15).

4. The priests had authority over the Levites as their ministers (verse 2), and over the people in a variety of ways: teachers (Leviticus 10:11); mediators of blessing (Numbers 6:22-26; Deuteronomy 21:5); judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-13); sanitary officers (Leviticus 13, 14).

5. Provision was made for their daily wants, that they might "attend upon the Lord" without distraction (verses 8-15).

6. They were thus, as mediators, the means of averting wrath from the nation (verse 5).

II. THEIR GRAVE RESPONSIBILITIES. Lest Aaron's "pride" should "bud" (Ezekiel 7:10), even as his rod had, and the priests should be exalted above measure through the abundance of their privileges, they are reminded of some of their responsibilities.

1. The priests and their father's house (the Levites or Kohathites) had to "bear the iniquity of the sanctuary" (cf. Exodus 28:38). Some errors might be atoned for, but they were responsible for any profanation of the tabernacle.

2. The priests alone had to "bear the iniquity of their priesthood." An annual atonement provided (Leviticus 16:6), but not for such willful transgressions as Nadab's, or for gross neglect (e.g., Leviticus 22:9).

3. They had a responsibility in regard to the Levites, not to allow them to intrude into the priest's office, that neither they nor ye also die" (verse 3).

4. The neglect of these duties might be fatal to others as well as to themselves (verses 3, 5). These two truths admit of various applications.

1. To Christian rulers, to statesmen called to the duty of governing a country on Christian principles, but incurring tremendous responsibility thereby. Illustrate from the history of Jeroboam (cf. Jeremiah 45:5; Luke 12:48).

2. To Christian teachers (1 Timothy 3:1, yet James 3:1). The burden of responsibility quite to account for the "Nolo Episcopari." Yet where God calls to the honour he will give strength and grace for the burden. - P.

It is full of significance that this provision for the iniquity of the sanctuary and priesthood stands first among the regulations of this chapter. Though God had separated Aaron, and in recent transactions exalted and glorified him, he had not thereby made it an easy or certain thing to serve in this office of priest as in all respects one was required to serve. God had called Israel to be his own people, and honoured them, but they were very perverse in all their ways. It is therefore far from wonderful that Aaron and the Levites, being of the same flesh and blood as rebellious Israel, should have fallen short in the holy service to which they were appointed. That rebellious spirit Korah, who was a Kohathite, shows how much iniquity could attach to the sanctuary; and the iniquity of the priesthood is amply shown in Aaron's conduct when he made the golden calf, and joined Miriam in her envious outbreak against Moses. But even apart from such capital instances of transgression, we may be sure there was continual iniquity both in sanctuary and priesthood - things done too often in a formal, listless way, priest and Levite alike conscious that the heart was not always in the work. It was necessary to provide also for imperfections in the offerings. The animals without blemish were only relatively so, not blemished so far as the contributors knew, the very pick, doubtless, of the flocks and herds. There was sincerity of purpose, but there could not be completeness of knowledge. Hence we are led to consider -

I. THE INEVITABLE SHORTCOMINGS IN OUR HOLIEST SERVICES. Considering how much we fall short even in our relations to men, how deficient in equity, benevolence, and gratitude, we may well feel that the iniquity of our religion must be a very large and serious matter indeed. In relation to God, bow ignorant is the understanding, how dull the conscience, how languid are the affections! What formality and preoccupation in the worship! how apt we are to turn it as far as we can into mere selfish pleasure, from music or eloquence! And when in the mercy of God we become more sensitive to his claims, more spiritually-minded, better able to estimate rightly this present evil world, then also we shall see our shortcomings in a clearer light. Faults that are not noticeable in the dim light of this world's ethics become not only manifest, but hideous and humiliating, when the light that lighteth every man coming into the world shines upon them. The holier we become, the humbler we become; the nearer we draw to God, the more conscious we are of the difference between him and us. We neither repent nor believe as we ought. Praise, prayer, meditation, good works, gospel efforts, all are seen to be not only imperfect, but lamentably so.

II. THE PECULIAR DANGERS WHICH BESET THOSE ENGAGED IN SPECIAL SERVICE. The Levites, however reverently they might at first bear the ark and the holy vessels, would gradually and insensibly contract a sort of indifference. The burdens would become like other burdens, thoughtlessly and mechanically borne. It is no easy matter for such as have to exhibit God's truth to an indifferent world to keep above indifference themselves. All the more reason, therefore, that they should be on their guard. There must needs be iniquity both in priesthood and sanctuary, but woe either to Aaron or his sons, or any Kohathite who presumed on this as an excuse for relaxing from the strictest attention. Though we cannot attain entire perfection, we are bound to labour on, getting more and more out of mediocrity and formality. Remember the humility, caution, and self-distrust with which Paul invariably speaks of his own attainments, ever magnifying the grace of God, ever confessing his need of Divine support, and the instant failure and danger which come from its withdrawal. Formality in any special work which God may require from his people, say, the exposition and enforcement of his truth, is ruinous. Christian work can never come to appear impossible, but it must never cease to appear difficult. It must always require attention, concentration, self-denial, and patience. It was a saying of J.J. Gurney, "The ministry of the gospel is the only thing I know which practice never makes easy."

III. THE DIFFUSIVE, PENETRATIVE POWER OF SIN. It is not so much as assumed that iniquity of the sanctuary and priesthood could be guarded against. However much was done in this direction, something would be left undone, needing to be provided for in the way of atonement. Sin is working in us and against us even when we are not conscious of it. It is a vain thing to make out that there is not much after all of sin in us, that it is a stage of weakness, ignorance, and imperfection out of which we shall naturally grow. - Y.

I. AARON HAD MANY HELPERS. No less than a whole tribe of Israel, 22,000 in number (Numbers 3:39). And if it be said, "What work could be found about the tabernacle for so many?" the answer is given in the portioning out of the work among the three great divisions of the tribe. The Levites were not around Aaron like the embellishments of a court, merely to impress the vulgar mind. They were there for work - real, necessary, honourable, beneficial work. A great deal of it might seem humble, but it could not be done without. So notice how Jesus gathered helpers around himself. It was one of the earliest things he did. He gave them also great power, such as to heal diseases, raise dead persons, and cast out demons; that thus they might authenticate the gracious and momentous message with which he had intrusted them. And in the course of ages how the helpers have increased in numbers and in variety of service! Doubtless when Israel settled in Canaan, and the Levites became distributed over the land, it was found that they were not at all too numerous for the religious requirements of the people. Christ is the center and the guide of an immense amount of spiritual industry; nevertheless, the cry goes out that many more hearts and hands might be engaged helping the Divine Saviour of men (John 4:35-38). It will be a long time before the Church has occasion to complain, with respect to labourers together with God, that the supply exceeds the demand. The householder had work to be done in his vineyard even at the eleventh hour.

II. THESE HELPERS MUST BE DULY QUALIFIED. They must all be of the tribe of Levi. Levi was taken in place of the first-born of Israel, and when the first-born were numbered it was found that they somewhat exceeded the number of qualified persons among the Levites. But God did not make up the deficiency by taking from other tribes; he kept the tabernacle service within the limits of Levi, and provided for a ransom instead (Numbers 3:39-51). The service was thus to be a matter of inheritance. Aaron and his sons had their portion - Kohathite, Gershonite, Merarite, each had his own field of work, and was not to transgress it. Strangers were cautioned against putting unauthorized hands on the tabernacle. It was as real a violation of the sanctuary for a common Israelite to touch even a peg of the tabernacle as to intrude within the veil itself. So we should ever look with great jealousy and carefulness on the qualifications for serving Jesus. There have been great hindrances, occasions for blasphemy, because unclean hands have not only meddled with holy things, but kept them long in charge. The service of Jesus should go down by spiritual inheritance. We take care in affairs of this world that there shall be due apprenticeship and preparation, ascertained fitness, the tools intrusted to those who can handle them, and surely there is equal if not greater need in the supremely important affairs of Christ's kingdom. Spiritual things should eve, be in charge of those who have spiritual discernment.

III. THOSE QUALIFIED WERE THEREBY PLACED UNDER OBLIGATION TO SERVE. As the service was confined to Levi, so every Levite, not otherwise disqualified, had to take part in it. There was nothing else for a Levite to do than serve God in connection with the sanctuary. He had no land; he was a substitute for others in holy service, and therefore they had to provide him with the necessaries of life. Thus his way in life was made clear; there was no need to consult personal inclination, and no room for reasonable doubt. And so, generally speaking', what service God expects from us we may be sure he will signify in the clearest manner. If we allow personal inclination to be the great prompter and decider, there is very little we shall do. Many there are whose personal inclinations lead them into some sort of connection with the Church of Christ, and keep them there, yet they never enter into anything like real service. They have a name to serve, yet are only idly busy. Personal inclination is a very small factor in Christian service, at least at the beginning, else Christ would not have been so urgent in his demands for self-denial. Not much, of course, can be done without love; but duty, the sense of what we ought to do, is to be the great power at the beginning. Those who have had the five talents from God may have to appear in his presence to be judged, conscious that not only have the talents been lost to him, but used so selfishly as rather to have gained five talents besides in worldly possessions, influence, and reputation. It is a monstrous sin to use God's property for the low, injurious aims of self. "Power," said John Foster, "to its very last particle, is duty."

IV. THOUGH THEY WERE HELPERS OF AARON, THEY COULD NOT BE HIS SUBSTITUTES. When the priest dies, it is not some experienced and sagacious Levite who can take his place; the priesthood is to be kept in the priest's own family. The hand cannot supply the place of the head. Take away the priest, and the head is gone. Aaron, if it had been necessary, could have stooped to do the humblest Levitical service, but not even the highest of the Kohathites could enter within the veil. And thus must the helpers of Christ ever look on him as separated by his nature and person to a work which no other human being can do. lie did indeed himself take up the work of the Baptist at one time, preaching repentance (Matthew 4:17), and he also at times became his own apostle in proclaiming the gospel; but to his own peculiar work neither Baptist nor apostle could rise. Whatever responsibility be laid on us, we are only helpers at best. Let no admiration we feel for the achievements of the men famous in Church history allow us to forget that their work has been really Christian and beneficial just in proportion as they made themselves secondary and subordinate to Christ. We do not sufficiently appreciate the service of any Christian, unless as we trace in it the sustaining and guiding power of Christ himself. In the Church one generation goeth and another cometh, but Christ abideth for ever. - Y.

Already, upon different occasions, something has been said as to parts of certain offerings being reserved for Aaron and his sons (Exodus 29:28, 31-33; Leviticus 2:3, 10; Leviticus 6:16-18, 26, 29, &c.), and now in this passage the whole question of how the priests were to be provided for is taken up and answered. It was a fitting occasion, seeing that priestly duties had just been laid down, so exacting and exclusive in their demands. When a man is called away from the ordinary business of life, where he is as it were naturally provided for by the fruits of his industry, it must always be an anxious question as to how he shall be supported. If the priests, along with the holding of their priestly office, had been able to farm or trade there would have been no need to point out a special means of support. But since the priest was to be wholly given to tabernacle service, it was right not only to assure him beforehand of the necessaries of life, but to point out to him something of the way in which they were to be provided.

I. THE SUPPORT OF THE PRIESTS WAS CLOSELY CONNECTED WITH THE FAITHFUL DISCHARGE OF THEIR OFFICE. They were provided for in the very act of carrying out their priestly duties. Forsaking the appointed service of God at his altar, they found themselves forsaken of his providence. He might have continued for them some miraculous provision by manna or otherwise, if such a course had seemed fitting; but he rather arranged it that in faithful waiting upon the altar their support should come from day to day. Faithfulness was required of them, first of all, in keeping the people instructed and reminded as to all the offerings required. An omitted offering might mean an impoverished priest. Faithfulness also was required in being continually at the altar. It was the appointed place for the people to give and for the priest to receive. There was no call for him to go on mendicant expeditions round the land, or lean upon the suggestions of his own prudence in order to make sure of daily bread. When he went to the altar it was as to a table provided by rite Lord himself. So when God manifestly calls any of us to special service, our very faithfulness in the service will bring a sufficient supply for all our need. If we leave the path of duty we leave the path of Providence.

II. THIS MODE OF PROVISION TENDED TO BIND PRIESTS AND PEOPLE CLOSER TOGETHER. The priest, while in some respects separated from the people by an impassable harrier, was in others united by an indissoluble bond. Standing before them as an anointed one, with awful and peculiar powers, treading unharmed where the first footstep of a common Israelite would have wrought instant death, he nevertheless appeared at the same time dependent for his bodily sustenance on the regular offerings of the people. Thus the priest was manifested as one of themselves. There was everything in this remarkable mingling of relations to keep the people from presumption and the priest from pride. Their dependence on him was not more manifest than his dependence on them. Thus, also, we observe in many and touching ways how dependent our Saviour was on those whom he came to save. He threw himself, as no one ever before or since, on the hospitality of the world, manifesting that there were real needs of his humanity which he looked even to sinful men to supply. And may we not well suppose that even in his glory Jesus is not only a giver to men, but a receiver from them? May it not be that by our fidelity and diligence in respect of the living sacrifice we are ministering a very real satisfaction to the glorified Jesus?

III. As this provision required faithfulness in the discharge of duty, so also it required FAITH IN GOD. If he had said he would provide manna or some direct miraculous gift, such an intimation would have been easier to receive than the one actually made. That which has to come to us indirectly, gives occasion for a greater trial of faith than what has to come directly. The food of these priests was to flow through a circuitous and, to judge by late experience, not very promising channel. Had not these very people, whose offerings were to support the priests, only lately shown their contempt for Aaron and unbelief as to the reality of his office? How then should they be the channels of God's providence? Thus the opportunity for faith comes in. Looking towards man, all is unlikely; looking through man to God, all appears certain and regular. God will make his own channels, in places we think unlikely, for those who put their trust in him. He knew that, stubborn and unsympathetic as the people now were, yet the day would come when their offerings might be looked for with a reasonable confidence. We are very poor judges by ourselves of what is likely or unlikely. The Divine arrangements, perplexing as they may appear on the surface, have in all cases a basis of knowledge and power which it is our wisdom humbly and gratefully to accept.

IV. This provision EVIDENTLY GUARDED AGAINST ANYTHING LIKE EXTORTION. The people themselves knew exactly how the priests were to be provided for. And this was no small matter, seeing that in course of time the holy priesthood became in the hands of arrogant and grasping men an occasion for priestcraft. Priests learned only too soon the power of an ipse dixit over superstitious and timid minds. But God does not allow the authority of an ipse dixit to any but himself. The priest was bound by a written and definite commandment which lay open to the perception of every one who had to do with him. All these offerings, of which he had a certain part, were to be presented in any ease. They were not presented in order that he might be provided for, but, being presented, they gave occasion sufficiently to provide for him. The people were to feel that he was being supported by a reasonable service.

V. THERE WAS A GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR PEOPLE TO GIVE IN A RIGHT SPIRIT. If any one had a grudging and fault-finding disposition there was certainly opportunity for him to exercise it. He could say, not without plausibility in the ears of like-minded men, that the priests were managing things very cleverly, so as to be provided for at the public expense. Misrepresentation is not a very difficult thing to achieve if certain considerations, and these alone, are brought into view. God's appointments for the support of the priesthood: were a standing trial of the people's views with respect to it. Misrepresentations cannot be escaped, but woe to those who, without troubling fully and honestly to understand the thing of which they speak, are the authors of misrepresentations. The priesthood itself was a Divine, a necessary, and a beneficial institution, and every devout Israelite would count it a joy to support it, even though particular holders of the office might be very unworthy men. We must honour and support every Divine appointment, and that all the more if the persons appointed show themselves insensible to the duties laid upon them. - Y.

God has defined the provisions for the priesthood, and indicated in what certainty and sufficiency they would come. He also indicates the permanency of the supply. The things given would be given to Aaron and to his sons and daughters with him by a statute for ever. Everything was done to make and keep the priesthood separate, and prevent those who had it from being tempted into the ordinary business of life, by fear lest they should lack sufficient support. And still further to emphasize the solemnity of the pledge, God adds this peculiar and suggestive expression: "It is a covenant of salt for ever." Dr. Thomson, in 'The Land and the Book,' tells us that it is a habit still common among the Bedawin, and probably coming from the remotest times, for host and guest to eat together. This is said to be bread and salt between them, and constitutes a pledge of protection, support, and fidelity even to death. Thus we may understand God saying to Aaron, and through him to the long succession of priests, "There is bread and salt between us." But we must also go back and consider Leviticus 2:13. All the meat offerings presented to God were to be seasoned with salt. When presented, a part was burnt, - as it were, eaten by God himself, - and the remainder he returns to the priest for his own use. Thus there are mutual pledges of fidelity. God is the guest of the priest, and the priest in turn the guest of God. In this way God lifted a social custom to a holy use. We cannot but notice in the second chapter of Leviticus that while some things are mentioned as constituents of the meat offering, viz., oil and frankincense, and others as excluded, viz., leaven and honey, a special emphasis is laid on the presence of salt. A special significance was to be indicated by that presence, and it agrees with this that when Ezra was going up from Babylon, furnished by Artaxerxes with all he might require for sacrifice, the salt is given without prescribing how much (Numbers 7:22). We must, however, look further back than social customs even, to find the reason why salt was present in this covenant. Social customs, could they be traced back, rise, some of them at least, out of religious ordinances. Why was salt chosen as the symbol? It is something to notice that salt gives flavour to that which is insipid. God's gifts may easily pall and become worthless if his presence is not associated with them; with the sense of that presence they cannot but be grateful. But the chief service of salt is to preserve that which is dead from decay. Salt will not bring back life, but it will hinder putrefaction. Under the old covenant God did not give life, though he was preparing to give it; but at the same time he did much to preserve the world, dead in trespasses and sins, from corpse decay, while he made ready in the fullness of time to bring back the dead to life. Thus the covenant with men through types and shadows was emphatically a covenant of salt. And the same may he said of the new covenant through the great reality in Christ Jesus. There is an element of salt in this covenant also. "Ye are the salt of the earth," said Christ to his disciples in the great and honourable burden of service which he laid on them. Indeed, what we call the old and the new covenant are really but shapes of that great covenant between God and man made in the very constitution of things. God, creating man in his own image, and planting within him certain powers and aspirations, is thereby recording the Divine articles in the covenant; and man also, by the manifestations of his nature, by his recognition of conscience, even by his idolatries and superstitions, and gropings after God, testifies to his part in the covenant. And in this covenant all true disciples are as the salt, the solemn, continuous pledge from God to the world that he does not look on it as beyond recovery. Be it the part of all disciples then to keep the savour of the salt that is in them. "Walk in wisdom towards them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be array with grace, seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:5, 6). It rests with us to honour God's covenant of salt and make it more and more efficacious. - Y.

The tribe of Levi was left out in the division of the land. Some of its members might have wished to be landowners rather than Levites. Yet their loss was a special privilege, for they were selected that they might "come nigh to God," and serve in his tabernacle. God who called them did not forget them. They received houses, gardens, pasture lands (Numbers 35:1-8), and tithes (verse 21), and were commended to the care and sympathy of the nation (Deuteronomy 12:12, 14, 27-29). Just so, under the gospel, those called to give up their lives to the service of God, though they may not have even manses or glebes, are provided for by God through the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:13, 14), and are commended to the care of his people (Galatians 6:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13). Let no young Christians who hear God's call to be pastors, evangelists, or missionaries hesitate to obey it. They may have many trials and heart-aches, but they know God's word: "Them that honour me I will honor." Their experience may be that of the Apostle's (Luke 22:35), for their Master's promise stands good (Matthew 19:29). But the privilege of the Levites may be enjoyed by all God's servants who can say with David, "The Lord is the portion of my inheritance."

I. THE CHRISTIAN'S INHERITANCE. Wisdom is needed in choosing an earthly inheritance or investing our "portion" of this world's goods. It may be invested in a freehold, embarked in a business venture, spent on one's own education, or squandered in riotous living. Much more is wisdom needed in regard to the soul's inheritance. Other portions allure some: modern idolatries, worldly wealth or ease (Psalm 17:14; Isaiah 57:6). But the Christian, like a loyal Levite, prefers God without the land to the land without God. He has committed his soul entirely to God. He has no second spiritual portion to fall back upon if this should fail him. Of this he has no fear. He has accepted God's offer to be his God and his portion, and he can say 2 Timothy 1:12.

II. THE RESPONSIBILITIES AND PRIVILEGES OF HAVING SUCH AN INHERITANCE. The grave responsibilities of the Levites have their parallel in the entire consecration needed from every Christian (Psalm 119:57; Titus 2:14). But we need not shrink from our responsibilities when we remember our privileges. The two things most needed in our inheritance are safety and sufficiency.

1. Safety. If God is our portion, he himself is our security (Deuteronomy 33:27). When be invited us to take him as our portion, it was because he took us as his inheritance (Deuteronomy 32:9; Isaiah 43:1; 1 Corinthians 3:23).

"Be thou my God, and the whole world is mine.
Whilst thou art Sovereign, I'm secure;
I shall be rich till thou art poor;
For all I hope and all I fear, heaven, earth, and hell, are thine."

2. Sufficiency. So was it with the Levites (verse 21, &c.), David (Psalm 16:6), Jacob (cf. Genesis 28:21; Genesis 48:15, 16), and so is it with all Christians. In God they have sufficiency for both spiritual wants (John 1:16; 1 Corinthians 3:21, 22; James 4:6) and temporal also (Psalm 84:11, 12; Matthew 6:33; Philippians 4:19). We can thus recommend God as the best portion for all.

1. A good portion for the young, who, like those born heirs to an estate, are entitled to this inheritance if they will claim it.

2. A good marriage portion. Illustration - Ruth, who brought Boaz an excellent portion (Ruth 1:16, 17; Ruth 2:11, 12).

3. A good inheritance in troublous times when banks and companies are failing. None of these vicissitudes in our inheritance (Deuteronomy 32:31).

4. A good inheritance in reserve (Lamentations 3:24). That hope cannot be disappointed; the heirs of God know that "still there's more to follow" (Psalm 31:19).

5. A good inheritance on a dying bed. Then all earthly inheritance daily drop in value to the proprietor, and at last "flesh and heart fail." But the Christian can say Psalm 73:26. Because God has been the "portion of his inheritance" he can add Psalm 16:8, 9, 11. - P.

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