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. THE PLACE AND TIME OF THE COMMAND. God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. Many wildernesses, though uncultivated, were fertile and well watered, but the wilderness of Sinai was a desolate place. Moses calls it "the great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions and drought, where there was no water;" and, again, "a desert land, a waste howling wilderness" (see Stanley's 'Sinai and Palestine'). Very different from the riches of Egypt left behind, and the riches of Canaan lying before. But though a wilderness, the tabernacle of the congregation was there, made by God's appointment and direction, even down to its minutest arrangements and furniture. As long as the tabernacle in their midst was honoured, the people could dwell safely even in the wilderness.
II. THE PURPOSE OF THE NUMBERING. To ascertain the strength of the people for war. Canaan, towards which they were advancing, was in the possession of enemies, who appreciated all its riches, and would not relinquish them without a severe struggle. At the time of the census the Israelites had not brought on themselves the penalty of the forty years' wandering. The census was meant to be one preparation for immediate conquest, as the mission of the spies was another. There was everything to give them courage and strength of mind when they remembered that there were more than 600,000 fighting men amongst them. And as they counted up their resources for war, so we may be sure Christ would ever have his militant Church on earth to do the same. The tone of the New Testament is not less warlike than of the Old, our Canaanites being principalities and powers, the rulers of the darkness of this world, and spiritual wickedness in high places.
III. THE METHOD OF THE NUMBERING. The method was determined by the purpose. Note, first, the exclusions. The women and the children were left out. In counting the Levites the children were not left out. Every male from a month old was numbered, for theirs was a constant service, and even the youngest was looked on as in training for it. But when war is imminent we can only count on such as can be ready at once, those from twenty years old and upward. The Church of Christ still divisible in the same way - those who can fight, and those who cannot; the men who are strong, because of the solid food they take, and the babes who are still hanging on milk and spoon meat. The Levites also were left out. A numerical loss may yet be a real gain. The Israelites were strong in their 600,000 only as long as they served God, according to his statutes and commandments. For the Levites to go to battle meant that all would go to neglect and disorder in the tabernacle. God obeyed and honoured is God on our side, and who then can be against us? The man who keeps his fifty-two sabbaths every year for God has not lost them, and the weekly contribution set aside for God's cause is not wasted. Secondly, the order observed in the numbering. By each tribe and family the result would be more speedily and correctly arrived at. Nature, even under the curse of sin, has its order, and will help us, if we are observant of it, to do the work of grace in an orderly way. Though there is a limit at the one end of life, there is none mentioned at the other. A man is never too old to fight for God, directing and inspiring the stronger arm of younger men. There is room for a Nestor as well as an Achilles, and Venice loved to keep the fame of
"Blind old Dandolo,
Th' octogenarian chief,
Byzantium's conquering foe." Thirdly, with all the information gained, there was much unknown. Those fit for fight by age could be counted up; but what of disposition? who could sift out the Korahs, Dathans, and Abirams, and the people whose hearts lingered after the fleshpots of Egypt? - Y.
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,