Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE PURPOSE OF IT.
1. The number of those able to go to war in Israel had still to be ascertained. Though the people are now reposing in unaccustomed and grateful quietude, with the promised Canaan just over against them, it is being impressed upon them in many ways that they must win it by conquest. The children, while inheriting the promises given to their fathers, inherit at the same time the services which the fathers had been found incompetent and unworthy to render. We may gather from this repeated census that God would have his people in every generation to count up their strength for conflict. It is only too easy to depreciate and forget our spiritual resources, and think them less than they are. Even a man like Elijah professed himself left alone, when the Lord knew there were still in Israel seven thousand who had not bowed to Baal. Those going forward into life must be made ready, so far as the advice and arrangements of ethers can make them ready, both for the certain conflict peculiar to each person, and for a part in the great battle against darkness and wrong which goes on through every age, under the leadership of Christ himself.
2. Possession of the land had to be prepared for (verses 52-56). The conflict will be a great, an arduous, and a taxing one, but it will assuredly end in victory. God's command to prepare for war brings as its logical and cheering sequence the command to prepare for possession. God is able to make regulations for the future, which, if men were spontaneously to make them for themselves, would savour of braggadocio (Numbers 15:2).
II. THE EXACT TIME AT WHICH IT WAS MADE. It was after the plague. We may presume that Israel had been to some extent purified by this visitation, although the plague was doubtless no respecter of persons, but involved innocent and guilty in one common temporal suffering, according to the fixed law of our fallen nature that the sins of the fathers are visited on the children. The dreadful result which the infecting idolatries of Moab had brought upon Israel was indeed a very impressive intimation that the full strength of the people was required. Those numbered in the army by reason of fit age were to see to it, and examine their hearts, and become as fit as possible in all other respects.
III. THE METHOD. Still the same as before, by tribes. There had been many changes, losses, and sad disturbances during this time of wandering and severity, but each tribe had kept itself distinct. They were still ranged in the same order round the tabernacle, and regarding it from the same point of view. So if we take a period, say of forty years, in the course of Christ's Church, we shall find the sects at the beginning of the period still existent at the end of it. The men who looked at truth from a certain point of view at the beginning have their spiritual successors who look at truth from the same point of view. The differences, the marked, emphasized, and pertinacious differences, found amongst believers are not so much between truth and error as between different aspects of the same external object.
IV. THE RESULT. It must have been anxiously waited for, not only to see the grand total, but the relative position of each tribe. The result shows somewhat fewer in number, but, as we have suggested, they were possibly purer in quality. Some tribes have increased, others decreased. In Simeon there is a most extraordinary falling away, but still it was quite within truth to say that for practical purposes the number had not diminished. Yes; but if Israel had not been passing through a temporary curse there ought to have been, and probably would have been, a marked and exhilarating increase. But instead of increase there is a slight decrease. Things had not been going lately as they did in Egypt, when "the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them" (Exodus 1:7). Certainly if one goes by the actual state of the people, there is but little room for Balaam's cheering words concerning the dust of Jacob and the fourth part of Israel (Numbers 23:10). In the light of this second census the whole narrative is seen to harmonize in a most subtle way. If Israel were under a curse these forty years, if there were a real suspending of God's favour and of the previous communications of his energy, it is just what might be expected that at the end of the period the people would be found no further forward than at the beginning - 600,000 when they left Sinai, 600,000 still when they reach Jordan. - Y.
I. To do justice to this aspect of Divine providence, it is of consequence to consider well WHAT AN IMPORTANT BUSINESS IS THE ORDERING OF THE LOCALITY IN WHICH MEN ARE TO PASS THEIR DAYS. The complexion of a nation's life and the tenor of its history are exceedingly affected by the sort of locality where it has its seat. A nation whose lot is fixed in the impenetrable depths of Africa, how different its history must necessarily be from that of a nation which has received for inheritance a sea-girt land, like Greece or Italy, Great Britain or Scandinavia! The one is sequestered front all quickening intercourse, and is likely to sleep on in a semi-torpid state; the other lies open to the influence of every tide of foreign thought and sentiment. Now it was precisely this question of locality which was determined for the tribes by lot. It is a mistake to suppose that the lot determined everything. The division of the country was to proceed on the principle that the extent of territory bestowed on the respective tribes was to be proportioned to the number of names in each (verses 53, 54). A glance at the map will show how carefully this was attended to. The number of acres which fell to the lot of "little Benjamin" was much smaller than the number embraced in the inheritance of "the mighty tribe of Ephraim." The business of thus apportioning to every tribe a domain corresponding to the number of its families was devolved on a Commission of Twelve, under the oversight of Eleazar and Joshua (Numbers 34:16-29). But before these commissioners could make the apportionment, it had first to be determined whereabouts each tribe was to be planted; and this was done by lot. The Lord reserved to himself the business of determining the bounds of his people's habitation. And, I repeat, this was a momentous determination. If Judah, instead of occupying the inland hills and valleys of the south, had received for its inheritance the lot of Simeon, on the coast of the Mediterranean, and in the way of the Gentiles, how different the course of its history would have been!
II. CONSIDER THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD IN THIS MATTER OF ORDERING THE BOUNDS OF MEN'S HABITATIONS. It is not the tribes of Israel only about whose bounds Divine providence is exercised. Read Deuteronomy 32:8 and Acts 17:26. But although God "from the place of his habitation looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth," it is equally evident from the Scripture that his providence occupies itself very specially about the affairs of his chosen people, and particularly about the ordering of their lot.
1. How true this is might be shown by many clear testimonies of Holy Scripture. At present it may be sufficient to remind you of the testimony borne by daily experience. When you left school you had in your mind many projects and resolves about the future - where you would settle, and what you would do. Have these stood? Have they not rather, in nine cases out of ten, been quite overruled? You proposed, but God disposed. Your portion has fallen to you by lot.
2. This being so, it is surely your duty to consider God's hand and providence in the matter. "The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord" (Proverbs 16:33). Here again experience says Amen to God's word. The man must have been blind indeed who has never perceived the hand of a special providence prospering or frustrating his purposes, and ordering his lot far better than he could himself have ordered it.
3. Due consideration of God's hand will move the soul to trust his providence. Abraham, being told of a country which he should afterwards receive for inheritance, went out trustfully, although he knew not whither he went. This we also are to do; it is the proper fruit and demonstration of our faith. And as we are to go forward in faith ourselves, so we are in faith to send forth into the world those most dear to us. We need not doubt that in answer to the prayer of faith the Lord will appoint to them a suitable lot, and give them cause to sing, "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage" (Psalm 16:6). - B.
e.g., the difference as to numbers; the fluctuations of the tribes, some increasing, others decreasing; in particular, the extraordinary decrease in Simeon arrests attention. But all these are passed over as not needing notice. There is one thing, however, to which attention is specially called, and indeed it must have been kept in view all the census through, namely, that not one of those numbered in the previous census was now alive. Those counted now had not been counted before.
I. ATTENTION IS CALLED TO A FULFILLED PREDICTION. It deserves special attention as a very remarkable, exact, and early fulfillment of prediction. Most of God's predictions for Israel worked on to their fulfillment slowly and imperceptibly through many generations; some in the highest sense of them are still incomplete; but here was a prediction concerning the present, moving to its fulfillment under the very eyes of many whom in their turn it would also include. Surely it must often have been talked of in the tents of Israel. And here was another purpose that the census served - to show clearly and impressively that the prediction had been fulfilled. The fulfillment had its dark side and its bright one. It was an impressive proof that what penalties God attaches to sin he can accomplish to their full extent. All had perished save Caleb and Joshua. Things had happened exactly as God said they would, the people themselves being witnesses. "If any one numbered in the previous census is still alive, save Caleb and Joshua, let him step forward," Moses and Eleazar might have said. But they were all silent in the mystery of a peculiar death. Rightly looked at, it was very comforting and inspiring for Israel to go into Canaan with such a wonderful proof of God's power in their minds. He who had so manifestly fulfilled such a peculiar prediction might be confidently expected to keep his word in all others.
II. THE COMPLETENESS OF THE DIVINE CONTROL OVER THE TERM OF HUMAN LIFE. What God did in the particular instance of this generation he can do in any and every generation, with any and every one of the children of men. We talk very grandly sometimes of the value of a sound constitution, the prudence of attending to the laws of health, and taking such means as may preserve life to a ripe old age. But while these considerations are indeed not to be neglected, God's will also must be taken, into account, as at least a possible regulating force in the term of every human life. He may have some weighty reason of his own for shortening or lengthening, which will nullify alike the prudence of some and the recklessness of others. It is not competent for us to say that he does actually interfere in every instance, as he so plainly did with the men of this doomed generation; it is enough for us to feel that he has power to do it. We have here but one out of many evidences to be found in the Scriptures that God has death completely under restraint. He can keep us back from its grasp as long as may seem good to him. He can also allow us to fall into its grasp, if thereby his own purposes will be better served. They are much more important than the devices and desires which arise out of our selfish, ignorant, and unexperienced hearts.
III. THE SPECIAL INTERVENTION IN THIS INSTANCE SUGGESTS THAT, AS A GENERAL RULE, NATURE IS LEFT TO ITS OWN COURSE. Every one entering this world is left to the play of what, for want of a better term, may be called the forces of nature. So much of natural vitality and energy, so much power of assimilation and growth, so much, sometimes good and sometimes bad, by Way of inheritance from parents, and, over and above what may be peculiar, the taint of that depravity which is the common calamity of the children of men - these are the elements with which we have to do our best. And might we not hope, if only the obstacles were taken away which arise from ignorance, error, prejudice, sensuality, and slavery to base appetites of every sort, that the term of human life would be extended far beyond what it is in the great majority of instances? Should it not be reckoned the normal state of things, the state of things according to God's own wish, for those who come into the world as infants to go out of it as old men? The reason why so many do not should be made a matter of urgent, light-seeking, personal inquiry. It is a very misleading thing to speak, and without any real authority to do so, of God calling people away; particularly infants and children, who furnish such a large and melancholy proportion of the world's mortality. We foreclose many questions of the greatest moment by a traditional, thought-benumbing fatalist,, a seemingly pious, yet really impious, profession of submission to the will of God. The will of God would sooner be complied with in this ignorant, purblind world if Christians, who pray that God's will may be done on earth as in heaven, would only set themselves to discover what the will of God really is. Surely it is a strange and horrible thing that, without some plain reason such as we find in 2 Samuel 12:14, many infants should breathe their little lives so quickly away; and it is all the more horrible when they thus die in spite of the solicitude and patient care of a loving mother. Where love abounds, wisdom may yet be lacking. A world wiser to consider the laws of nature and self-denyingly to obey them would be a less anguished and sorrowing world. Mothers would not so often be sharing Rachel's bitter lot, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted.
IV. THE EXTENSION OF GOD'S WRATH OVER THIS LONG PERIOD ESPECIALLY MARKS IT OUT AS WRATH AGAINST UNRIGHTEOUSNESS (Romans 1:18). God is not a man, that he should be carried away in sudden bursts of passion, and need the exhortation, "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath." For forty years he went patiently through the vineyard, cutting down the cumberers of the ground. Sudden as were the flamings out of the Divine wrath on Israel, it was because Israel was as dry, susceptible fuel to the flame. Wherever there is unrighteousness of men there must be wrath of God. In the deliberate, steady fulfilling of God's wrath on the doomed generation we see a most sublime contrast with the caprice, uncertainty, and partiality of human passion.
V. THERE IS A VERY EMPHATIC ASSURANCE OF GOD'S INTEREST IN ISRAEL INDIVIDUALLY. Each man who thus died had the eye of the Lord on him as an individual. And though he suffered temporal death as a necessary consequence of belonging to the doomed generation, yet the very same watchful care of God which acted with severity in one way was equally available to act with mercy in another. The doom which fell upon the Israelite as Israelite was quite compatible with mercy to the Israelite as a man. Let us in the midst of our need, in the midst of our difficulties in finding a way to God, lay hold of every assurance we can get, and especially in the Scriptures, as to the reality of God's dealings with individuals. There is special record in the Scriptures of his dealings with some, but of many there is of necessity no such record. Here there is clear evidence of God's dealings, individually, with more than 600,000 men in forty years. That period was given for every one of them to pass from the earth, so that at the end of it there was not a survivor to enter the promised land, save the two men who had been singled out for preservation. And God is dealing with every individual now, and by his goodness would lead him to repentance. What is wanted in return is that every individual thus appealed to, when he meets the angel of repentance in the way, should have dealings with God such as may end in the full reception of eternal life and increased glory to the fullness of the Divine Trinity. - Y.