Numbers 4
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
From the giving of the law till the building of Solomon's temple, a space of about 500 years, the Lord at no time "dwelt in any house, but walked in a tent and in a tabernacle" (2 Samuel 7:6). The sanctuary was a moving tent, and one principal part of the business of the Levites, the most honourable function assigned to them, was the carriage of it from place to place. Moses, who regulated so exactly the order of all the tribes, both for the march and the encampment, did not omit to appoint to every division of the Levites its duty in relation to the tabernacle and its holy furniture - what each was to carry, and in what order they were to pitch their tents. In this chapter of detailed regulations, special interest attaches to the law laid down regarding THE LEVITES' PERIOD OF SERVICE in carrying the tabernacle. It was from thirty years old till fifty (verses 3, 23, 30). This must be taken along with Numbers 8:24, where the age for entering on service is fixed at twenty-five. The explanation of the seeming discrepancy, no doubt, is that the first five years were a kind of apprenticeship. Certain other sorts of work about the tabernacle the Levites might do between twenty-five and thirty, and these they might continue to do, so far as their strength served, long after fifty; but except between thirty and fifty they might not bear the tabernacle and its vessels. When David gave to the ark a permanent abode at Jerusalem, and the service of the Levites was readjusted accordingly, the age for entering on duty was lowered to twenty, and at that point it thereafter stood (see 1 Chronicles 23:27; Ezra 3:8). The principle underlying the law was still the same. The service of God, especially in its most sacred parts, requires and deserves the best of Our years, our strength, our affections. His soul desires the first ripe fruit. There are three errors men are apt to fall into in this matter of service; I refer more especially to official service.

1. Some enter on it too young. No hard and fast line can be drawn for all men and every service. One kind of service demands greater maturity than another, and one man ripens earlier than another. But the rule here prescribed to the Levites is a good one for the average of cases. To speak only of the Christian ministry: few men under twenty-five are ripe for it, and places of special trust would require a man of thirty. Undue baste is neither reverent nor safe. The first sermon of our blessed Lord was not preached till "he began to be about thirty years of age" (Luke 3:23); a touching and most suggestive example.

2. Some delay entering fill they are too old. This is most frequently seen in unofficial service. Many men, not destitute of piety, think it incumbent on them to give their prime so entirely to "business" that they have no time for anything else. Church work, home mission work, charity services, participation in these they look forward to as the employment of their leisure, after they shall have retired from business. That, at the best, is giving to the Lord not the first-fruits, but the gleanings. It will be found that, as a rule, it is not these tardy labourers whom God honours to be most useful. He honours those rather (thank God, they are many, and increasing in number) who consecrate to him a fair proportion of their strength when they are at their prime.

3. Some do not know when if is time for them to resign. The Levites' period of active service, whether it began at thirty, or twenty-five, or twenty, always ended at fifty. Not that the law thrust them out of the sanctuary when their term expired; that would have been cruelty to men who loved the service. They might still frequent the sanctuary, and perform occasional offices (see Numbers 8:26). But after fifty they ceased to be on the regular staff. Here too the rule has to be applied to the Christian Church with discrimination. For services which are characteristically mental and spiritual, a man's prime certainly does not cease at fifty. Nevertheless, the principle at the root of the rule is of undying validity and importance. The Levites' maintenance did not cease at fifty; and any Church system which does not make such provision as enables its ministers to retire when their strength fails is unscriptural and defective. On the other part, it is the duty and will be the wisdom of the Church's servants to seek retirement when they are no longer able to minister to the Lord with fresh vigour. - B.

Numbers 4
One tribe has been set apart in lieu of the first-born of all Israel, and to this tribe is entrusted the service of the tabernacle. The nature and distribution of that service are now placed before us. Note -

I. THE REGARD FOR THE PRINCIPLE OF INHERITANCE. As the tribes had their appointed place around the tabernacle, so the three great natural divisions of the tribe of Levi had their appointed place in it. So in the service of the Church of Christ there must ever be something corresponding to this natural division in Levi. The great Head has given some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. There are always some Christians rather than others who may be taken as spiritual children of certain in the spiritual generation before them, those on whom the prophet's mantle may fall, as did that of Elijah on Elisha.

II. THE LIMITATIONS OF SERVICE. No Levite could do the work of an anointed priest. The Kohathites were to bear the things of the holy place, but they were not to see them or prepare them for removal. There was a gulf of difference between Aaron and the noblest of the Kohathites, though they belonged to the same tribe. So between Christ and even the best of his people. There is so much to link us to our Lord, so much to reveal him as walking about on the same level, that we cannot be too careful to remember the differences between our services, humble even the most honourable of them, and that glorious peculiar service where Christ is Priest and Atonement in one. The limitations of age. None under thirty, none over fifty. At twenty a man may have strength and courage for fighting (Numbers 1:3), but ten years more must pass over his head before he is judged to have the sobriety and sedateness needed for tabernacle service. Then at fifty he retires. God has consideration for failing strength. The burdens of the tabernacle must be carried, therefore God provides that the bearers shall be strong. There were constantly fresh and, we may suppose, often eager accessions at the younger limit of the service. Jesus was about thirty when he entered on his public life (Luke 3:23), and the Baptist would be about the same. Let these limitations of God be considered by all whom they concern. There are duties of manhood which youth has not the experience, nor age the strength, to perform.

III. THE SECURING OF PERSONAL SERVICE (verses 19, 49). Only certain persons were fit to do the work, but all who were fit had some work to do. In the Church of Christ fitness for anything, clearly seen, distinctly felt, has in it the nature of a command. We need not fear that there will ever be too many persons engaged in the service of the true tabernacle. There were between eight and nine thousand at this first appointment, but the Lord's promise runs (Jeremiah 33:22), "As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured, so I will multiply the Levites that minister unto me." We are all Levites now.

IV. THE WORK WAS ALL NECESSARY WORK. No doubt a certain honour attached to the Kohathites, but great risk went with it; and after all, the honour was more in the eyes of men than of God. All that is needful to be done for him is honourable. The least peg or cord was not to be left behind, any more than the ark itself. There should be a spirit of humble joy and gratitude in us that we are counted worthy to do anything for God. All are needed to make up the perfection of service. To the complete body the little finger is as needful as the complex and powerful brain. For the circulation of the blood the capillaries are as needful as the great arteries and veins. God calls for no superfluous work from us. He has no mere ornaments in the Church. If a thing is not of use, it is no ornament, however it be decorated. Application: - Find your work and burden. Every one has his own burden (φορτίον) to bear. No one else then can carry your burden than you. Seek your place. Take the lowest one, then assuredly you will come in time to the right one. The lowest place in the tabernacle service is better than the highest among the ungodly (Psalm 84:10). - Y. INTERIOR SANCTITIES OF ISRAEL (CHAPTERS 5, 6).






Whether these portions of the Divine legislation are connected with the surrounding narrative

(1) by an order of time, as having been given at this point, or

(2) by a harmony of subject, as completing on its inward side the perfection of the camp, or whether

(3) their insertion here was in a sense accidental, and not now to be accounted for, must remain uncertain. Against

(1) it must be observed that there is a decided break in the order of time at the beginning of chapter 7; against

(2) that a large part of the Levitical enactments might have been added here with an equal propriety.

The sons of Kohath had the most honourable of the duties assigned to the Levites, in being permitted to carry the sacred vessels of the tabernacle. But they were thus exposed to temptations and perils from which their less favoured brethren were exempt. To touch or even to see the holy things was death. Similar temptations, to those intrusted with distinguished service in God's Church, may arise from -

I. CURIOSITY. Illustrate from the sin of the men of Bethshemesh (1 Samuel 6). Men brought by their duties into close contact with Divine mysteries may yield to the curiosity of unauthorized speculations to which ignorant and groveling minds are not exposed (cf. Colossians 2:18). Illustrate from speculations on the Trinity, the incarnation, or the profitless inquiries of some of the schoolmen as to angels, etc. Caution applicable to theological speculations of today (Deuteronomy 29:29).

II. THOUGHTLESSNESS. A thoughtless disregard of God's strict injunctions, by either a priest (verses 18, 19) or a Kohathite, might have been fatal. So now those who have perpetually to deal with Divine things are in danger of irreverence from thoughtlessness. E.g., Christian ministers, who have to be constantly praying and preaching, as part of their service for God. Christians who have a reputation for saintliness above their brethren need special reverence, lest they should handle Divine things in a familiar, unauthorized manner. Apply to some habits of modern public worship tending to sad irreverence.

III. DISTRUST. Illustrate from the sin of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:6, 7). We are thus warned against using illegitimate means in support of the cause of God which we think to be in danger. Carnal methods must not be resorted to for the defense of spiritual truths. Some of the most devoted servants of Christ have profaned the ark of God, when they thought it in danger, by touching and propping it by supports God has never sanctioned. E.g., persecutions on behalf of the truth of God. Caution to those who now rely on worldly alliances and statesmanship on behalf of God's Church. Front such perils we may be preserved by the spirit of

(1) profound humility, at the privilege of being allowed to come so near and to deal with the mysteries of God (Ephesians 3:8; Hebrews 12:28, 29);

(2) reverential obedience to every item of the instructions God has given us (1 Chronicles 15:12, 13; Psalm 119:128);

(3) fearless trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, who has guarded his Church hitherto, is saving us, and who will protect his people and his truth by his own power to the end (2 Timothy 4:18). - P.

LEST THEY DIE: that note of warning is often heard in the law. If any man or woman touched the flaming mount, it was death (Exodus 19:12). It was death if the high priest entered into the holiest on any day but one, or on that day if he omitted to shroud the mercy-seat in a cloud of fragrant incense (Leviticus 16:3-13). It was death if any son of Aaron transgressed the ritual, were it only by officiating in any other than the appointed garments (Exodus 28:43). In the same strain, this law in Numbers makes it death for any common Levite to touch, or gaze upon, the holy things till the priest has packed them up in their thick wrappings (verses 19, 20; cf. Numbers 1:51; Numbers 3:10). The example first of Nadab and Abihu, and afterwards of Korah and his company, showed that these threats were spoken in earnest. We cannot marvel that, after hearing and seeing all this, the people were smitten with terror, and cried out to Moses, "We perish, we perish, we all perish. Whosoever cometh anything near unto the tabernacle of the Lord shall die. Shall we be consumed with dying?" (Numbers 17:13).

I. THIS FEATURE OF THE LAW WILL HELP YOU TO UNDERSTAND THE DEPRECIATORY TERMS IN WHICH IT IS SO OFTEN MENTIONED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, especially by the Apostle Paul. The law was "the ministration of death and of condemnation" (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9); it "worketh wrath" (Romans 4:15); it breathed a "spirit of bondage" and fear (Romans 8:15); it "gendered to bondage" (Galatians 4:24); it was "an intolerable yoke" (Acts 15:10). Not that the whole contents of the Pentateuch fell under this description. Much of promise was spoken in presence of the mountain of the law. But let the law be taken by itself, and let the gospel verities foreshadowed by its ritual be shut out from view, and does it not answer to the disparaging descriptions? It was full of wrath, condemnation, fear. No doubt there was an element of grace even in the covenant of Sinai. It was a benefit done to Israel when the Lord delivered to them the commandments, pitched his tabernacle among them, and suffered them to draw near under the conditions of the ritual. Nevertheless, the conditions were hard and terrible; we may well thank God for abolishing them. They are utterly abolished. The veil is rent from top to bottom; the yoke is broken; we have received the spirit of adoption, not the spirit of bondage again to fear; we have boldness to enter into the holiest.

II. NOTHING THAT HAS BEEN SAID IMPLIES THAT THE LEVITICAL LAW WAS REALLY UNWORTHY OF THE WISDOM OR THE GRACE OF GOD. For the time then present it was the best thing that could be. Certain truths of primary importance men were everywhere forgetting: among others, the holy majesty of God; that communion with God is to the soul of man the very breath of life; that man is a sinner for whom there is no remission, no access, without atonement. These lessons the law was meant and fitted to teach. These lessons it did teach, burning them into the conscience of the nation. The law was not the gospel, but it led forward to the gospel. A service beyond all price.

III. NOR HAS THE BENEFICENT OFFICE OF THE LAW CEASED WITH THE ADVENT OF THE BETTER TIME. Men are ready to abuse the grace of God, to give harbour to licentiousness on pretext of Christian liberty. If you doubt it, search well your own heart. What is the remedy? It is found sometimes in the rod of God's afflicting providence, sometimes in the searching discipline of the law. For the law, although in its letter abrogated, abides for ever in its substance. We are not bound - we are not at liberty - to slay sin offerings or burn incense. But we are bound to ruminate on the law of sacrifice and intercession. The Levitical ritual belongs in this sense to us as much as it ever belonged to the Jews. It admonishes us of the reverence due to God. A certain filial boldness he will welcome, but presumptuous trifling with his majesty and holiness he will not suffer. If we would be accepted, we must worship God with reverence and godly fear, for our God is still a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). - B.

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