Numbers 1:1, 2
And the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month…
I. A FEW WORDS ABOUT THE CENSUS which is being taken to-day in every town, every hamlet, every remote habitation of the United Kingdom, from the English Channel to the seas that surge round the Shetland Islands. There are still some people - not many, let us hope - who have a scruple about filling up the census papers. They are haunted with an apprehension that there is something wrong, something dangerous, about the business. "Did not King David transgress in numbering the people? Did he not by so doing bring God's wrath upon his kingdom? Would that which brought guilt and sorrow on David be right or safe for us?" What are we to say to these scrupulous persons? I have not time to go into the questions that have been raised about the real nature of David's sin. One thing is plain: the evil lay not in the taking of a census, but in the intention of that particular census. David was a man of war. In his hands the kingdom was in danger of becoming a despotic and military monarchy, such as the nations of the world have had occasion to know too well. And there can be little doubt that the census he projected was meant to subserve the ends of such a monarchy. It was meant to be just such an instrument of oppression in Israel as William the Conqueror's Domesday Book was in England. The design of the compilation seems to have been, in both cases, very much the same. Anyhow, it is certain that the simple numbering of the people was not forbidden by the law of God. On the contrary, the Bible is dead against such a barbarous and hazardous style of national administration as is inevitable when the national governors are in the dark regarding the statistics of the people. The Israelites dealt largely in statistics; to a surprising degree they anticipated the practice of the nineteenth century in this matter. At all the great turning-points in their history a census was taken. This Book of NUMBERS owes its name to the fact that it records two census-takings, one at the beginning, the other at the close, of the forty years' sojourn in the wilderness. So long as the Bible has a Book of Numbers in it, intelligent Bible readers will see in it an admonition to fill up their census papers with exactness and for conscience sake.
II. MEDITATIONS PROPER TO THE CENSUS DAY. The filling up of a census paper is, in itself, a piece of secular business. Yet I do not envy the man who can perform it without being visited with a touch of holy feeling. The setting down of the names of one's household brings up many tragic memories. The setting down one's own age, after a lapse of ten years - surely it summons us to count our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. It is not often observed that the law of Moses prescribed a religious service for the occasion of a census-taking (Exodus 30:11-16). This the children of Israel are to perform, "that there be no plague among them when thou numberest them." A measure may be right in itself, and yet may be apt to become to us an occasion of sin. When a nation is reckoning up the number of its sons, it will be apt to harbour proud confidence in their valour; and proud confidence in man God will not bear. When Nebuchadnezzar begins to say, "Is not this great Babylon which I have built for the house of my kingdom?" God's humbling stroke is near. On the census day the Israelites were to bring "every man a ransom for his soul.'" The act was as much as to say, "I am not worthy to be registered among the living in Israel, the holy nation, the kingdom of priests. I am a sinful man, O Lord; but I believe that there is forgiveness with thee. Forgive me, therefore, O Lord reject me not. Remember me with the favour thou bearest unto thy people, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, and glory with thine inheritance." The ransom money required from every Israelite on the census day was a poll-tax of half a shekel. The rich paid no more, the poor paid no less. The law of Moses did not often impose this sort of tax; for With a show of equality, it is the most unequal of taxes. Ordinarily the law invited princes to bring princely gifts, while it suffered the poor man's pair of turtle-doves to come up with acceptance on the altar. The poll-tax of the census day was altogether exceptional. Nor is it difficult to understand why the exception should have been made on this one occasion. It was very significant. Religion does not abrogate all social inequalities; but the non-recognition of these in the atonement-money admonishes us that the inequalities which find place among men in regard to wealth, station, intellectual gifts, are as nothing in comparison with their essential equality as creatures made in the image of God. It admonishes us also that all who have obtained an inheritance among God's people are on one level with regard to their right to be there. "There is no difference; for all have sinned, and all are justified freely." Yet another reflection. The Lord keeps an exact register of his people. There is a Book of Life in which are inscribed the names of all whom he has chosen, and caused to approach unto him, that they may dwell in his house. How true this is, the whole Scripture bears witness (see Exodus 32:32; Isaiah 4:3; Ezekiel 13:9; Luke 10:20; Philippians 4:3; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 13:8). We commonly think of this as a book which is shut and sealed. No man on earth can take it into his hand and read out the names inscribed in it. The Lord only knoweth them that are his; we may not sit in judgment on one another's state before God. All this is true. Yet the truth has another side: if the seventy are to rejoice because their names are written in heaven, it must be possible for them to ascertain the fact. A man may ascertain his own acceptance with God. Not only so. If the Apostle was confident regarding certain of the early Christians that their names were in the Book of Life, we also may, without prying into God's secrets, attain to a similar persuasion respecting such of our brethren as bear Christ's image, and abound in his work. Who bear Christ's image, and abound in his work - I use these words advisedly; they express the evidence which avails to prove that a given name is in the Book of Life. The census-table compiled by Moses contained only the names of such as were, by birth or adoption, the sons of Jacob. The Book of Life contains only the names of those whom God has "predestinated to the adoption of sons by Jesus Christ." To make sure that I am a son - that God has brought me home to himself by his Word and Spirit - this is the only way of making sure that my name has a place in the Lamb's Book of Life. - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: And the LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacle of the congregation, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying,