THE CENSUS OF SINAI (Numbers 1:1-54).
THE CENSUS DIVINELY COMMANDED (Numbers 1:1-16).
In the tabernacle of the congregation—where the Lord spake with Moses "face to face" (Exodus 33:11), and where all the laws of Leviticus had been given (Leviticus 1:1). On the first day of the second month, in the second year. On the first day of Zif (or Ijar); a year and a fortnight since the exodus, ten months and a half since their arrival at Sinai, and a month since the tabernacle had been set up.
Take ye the sum of all the congregation. The census here ordered had clearly been anticipated, as far as the numbers were concerned, by the results of the half-shekel poll-tax for the service of the sanctuary levied some time before on all adult males on pain of Divine displeasure (Exodus 30:11, sq.). Since all who were liable had paid that tax (Exodus 38:25, Exodus 38:26), it would only have been requisite to make slight; corrections for death or coming of age during the interval. The totals, however, in the two eases being exactly the same, it is evident that no such corrections were made, and that the round numbers already obtained were accepted as sufficiently accurate for all practical purposes. After their families. This was to be a registration as well as a census. No doubt the lists and pedigrees collected at this time laid the foundation of that exact and careful genealogical lore which played so important a part both in the religious and in the secular history of the Jews down to the final dispersion. Every Jew had not only his national, but also (and often even more) his tribal and family, associations, traditions, and sympathies. Unity, but not uniformity,—unity in all deepest interests and highest purposes, combined with great variety of character, of tradition, and even of tendency,—was the ideal of the life of Israel. The number of their names. It is impossible to help thinking of the parallel expression in Acts 1:15, of the similarity in position of the two peoples, of the contrast between their numbers and apparent chances of success, of the more striking contrast between their actual achievements.
By their armies. Every citizen was a soldier. The military monarchies of mediaeval or of modern days, with their universal obligation to service in the ranks, have (so far) but followed the example of ancient Israel.
A man of every tribe. The former census, which was for religious purposes only, was made with the assistance of the Levites. This, which was rather for political and military purposes, was supervised by the lay heads of the people.
These are the names of the men. The tribes are here mentioned (through their princes) very nearly in the order of their subsequent encampment—south, east, west, and north. Gad alone is displaced, in order that he may be classed with the other sons of the handmaids after the sons of the free women.
Nahshon—the brother-in-law of Aaron (Exodus 6:23), and ancestor of David and of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:4).
Elishama—grandfather of Joshua (1 Chronicles 7:26). All the rest are unnamed elsewhere.
Heads of thousands. Septuagint, chiliarchs; but the word is used for families (see 6:15), and, like all such words, it rapidly lost its numerical significance.
THE NUMBERING OF GOD'S PEOPLE
We have here, spiritually, the Church of God militant here on earth, "drawn up unto eternal life (Acts 13:48), numbered and counted and ordered by the Great Captain of the Lord's host; man by man, soul by soul, to be his valiant soldiers and servants in the march and the conflict, and the manifold trials and temptations of this probation. Consider, therefore—
I. That this numbering of all his soldiers by name was MADE AT THE EXPRESS AND PARTICULAR COMMAND OF GOD, as it were for the Divine information; herein contrasting with that other numbering so sorely avenged under David, because made to feed his own pride. Even so the Lord is exceeding careful of the number of his own; one of the two sacred mottoes stamped upon his Church is, "The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Timothy 2:19); "The Good Shepherd calleth his own sheep by name" (John 10:3); and every one of them is expressed by name in his book (Revelation 3:5). We are "numbered" in the census of a great nation; every one of us is something stronger, holds his head somewhat higher, for the thought that he is numbered amongst the thirty millions of a great country, the ninety millions of a greater people. Are we also "numbered" among the innumerable and ever-victorious hosts of the Lord? Are we included in his census? If so, are we mindful of the condition? (2 Timothy 2:3, 2 Timothy 2:4). Are we tremblingly hopeful of the promise? (Revelation 3:5).
II. That it was IN THE SECOND YEAR that they were thus numbered "by their armies:" first came the great deliverance unto Sinai, the mount of God; then came the teaching of the moral law; then came the instructions of outward religion; then—and not till then—the command to number into the ranks. Even so the soldiers of the cross are not called at once to arms; the deliverance came first of course, the decease, "the exodus" (Luke 9:31) which he accomplished at Jerusalem; after that came to each the inculcation of the immutable laws of moral conduct; after that the ordinances of public and private worship; and then only, after such training, with such aids, is each believer numbered unto active service, and called, as it were, by name to approve himself as a trusty soldier of Jesus Christ.
III. That only those were "numbered," and entered, as it were, on the roll-call of the Lord, who WERE "ABLE TO GO FORTH TO WAR in Israel;" all the others, the women and the children, etc; remained unspecified and unnoted. Even so all the Lord's people whose names are written in the Book of Life must be combatants. They need not indeed be men, but they must "quit" themselves "like men" (1 Corinthians 16:13). They may be weak women, or even tender children, for such have shown themselves (and do show) to the full as valiant for Christ as any men. But they must be combatants, for that is the one condition on which we are received into that "multitude which no man can number" (but the Lord can), and the promise is "to him that overcometh," and to none other.
IV. That of these names in Numbers 1:16, renowned amongst men and chosen of God to honour and dignity, ALL BUT TWO ARE TOTALLY UNKNOWN TO US, and those two only through their descendants. So in the Church, those that are the greatest with God are often the obscurest in the annals of men. As "Antipas" was expressly called (by a singular honour), "my faithful martyr" by Christ; yet is there no knowledge of him, not even a legend concerning him, in the Church.
HOMILIES BY W. BINNIE
Numbers 1:1, Numbers 1:2
A HOMILY FOR THE CENSUS DAY.
THE NUMBERING OF THE PEOPLE
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.
HOMILIES BY D. YOUNG
GOD COMMANDS A CENSUS
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.
THE MEN OF RENOWN WHO MANAGED THE CENSUS
I. THEY ARE MERE NAMES TO US. Were we asked who Eliab was, we should say the eldest, envious, angry brother of David, not the census-taker for Zebulun; or Gamaliel, he who stood up in the council, not the census-taker for Manasseh. High as they may have been once, their position in human history is little better than oblivion.
"The long, proud tale of swelling fame
Dried to a brief and barren name."
II. Yet though mere names now, they WERE ONCE WELL KNOWN. Every child of Zebulun would be taught to look up to Eliab.
III. Though mere names to us, THEY DID A USEFUL WORK IN THEIR TIME. It would be no small satisfaction to them, if they looked at the thing rightly, to consider that they had been able to undertake for Moses such an important work as making sure of the fighting strength of each tribe.
IV. There was doubtless some appreciation of their services AT THE TIME, both by Moses and the sober-minded of the people.
V. But in any case GOD HAS MARKED WHAT THEY DID. He has the record of all the faithful and the holy who have only their names in human history, and the far greater part of them not even that.—Y.
FROM TWENTY YEARS OLD AND UPWARD.
By this census all the young men of Israel were urged to the consideration of a possible claim upon them. It is to the young men that a country looks when her integrity and liberties are in danger. Young men are wanted still to take a brave and intelligent part in the strife of the Church militant. "I have written unto you young men because ye are strong, and the word of God abideth in you, and ye have overcome the wicked one." So Paul to Timothy: "Endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ." God's people have to deal with the Canaanites, Amorites, and all the rest of the hostile nations. Many iniquities are in possession of the earth. Old men, who have struggled against them and done something to diminish them, ask who will take up the sword and shield and go forth against the mighty. The word comes to us. "You are fit to fight. Will you fight?" Young men dazzled with the visions of military glory, here is a campaign where not men are slaughtered, but the evils that ruin men. Our Lord, the Captain of our salvation, will richly equip us with weapons mighty for the pulling down of strongholds, the armour of righteousness on the right hand and the left.—Y.