January 24, 2007
Dr. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Numbers 2. Thank you. It’s not quite as long a passage as last week, but it’s a fairly long passage.
Last week we were in Numbers 1, which gave us the numbering of the tribes; now in Numbers 2, we come to the arranging of the tribes. And we’ve said as we have come to the book of Numbers that this book, though it is filled with history that is unfamiliar to some, history that is suspected to be boring by others…we’ve said that Moses tells the stories of the history of God’s people in such a way in this book that these stories are electric, and they are filled with wisdom and with Christ for us.
We also said that even in the instructions, though they may seem to be obscure and arcane, even the instructions we’ll receive tonight from the lips of Moses in Numbers 2, yet in these instructions there is thunder and lightning, because the Apostle Paul tells us in I Corinthians 10 that the events of this book happened, and this book was written, for Christians. It’s vitally important for us to understand this. This is not just an interesting obscure book of Old Testament history written for history nerds like me. This is a book, the events of which happened for you, and the events of which were written by Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for you. That’s not a deduction; that’s not an implication of what he says; that is explicitly what he says in I Corinthians 10. This book’s for you. That’s what he says.
And it’s a book about sanctification. It’s a book about the Christian life. It’s a book set in the wilderness. This book is about the people of God in the wilderness walking with God and growing in grace, and I can’t think of a more timely topic for believers in this world of ours–this weary world of ours, this fallen world of ours, this sinful world of ours, this heartbreaking world of ours.
This book gives you a full “warts biography” of the people in the wilderness. They do not come out looking good! But isn’t that exactly the kind of book that we need? Because if our hearts were opened and our lives were read in public, we wouldn’t come out looking good either. And the Apostle Paul tells us that we’re to learn from them, and so that’s what we’re going to do.
Now tonight there are six things that I want us to learn out of Numbers 2. As you look at this chapter on the outline…and I’m not going to cover any of the introductory ground that I’ve given you on the outline. There’s really no outline for what we’re going to do tonight. That’s why I’m giving you these six points up front. What I have provided you is what the arrangement looks like. On the bottom of the outline you have the summary of where we’ve come so far, and you have a picture, a diagram of how this organization would have looked. If you were looking from above, what would this organization that you’re going to hear read have looked like? And as we think about this organization, I want you to think and look for six particular things.
Ask yourself first of all, “What is this organization supposed to be? What are the people of God supposed to look like from the organization that is commanded in Numbers 2?”
Secondly, ask yourself the question, “Who is at the center of the people of God in this organization?”
Thirdly, ask the question, “What is God living in while the people of God live in tents, going through the wilderness?”
Fourthly, ask yourself the question: “The outer tribes…how far are they and what is in between them and the Ark of the Covenant in the middle of the formation? How far are they from and what is in between them and the Ark of the Covenant in the middle of the formation, and what does that teach us about God?”
Fifthly, I want you to notice that there is a specific commandment for the placement of everyone in Israel in this diagram, and I want you to ask yourself what that teaches you about our appointed place in the people of God.
And then, sixthly, I want us to remember that this formation is a formation that you are going to see with your own eyes by grace again.
Those are our six points tonight. Let’s look to God in prayer before we read His word.
Lord, this is Your word. We could be seriously fooled into thinking that this is a trivial record of an obscure and irrelevant ordering of a people that lived and died a long time ago, and that it doesn’t have anything to say to us. Or, we could remember that Your word is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and that it is given by inspiration, and it is profitable for teaching, for reproof and correction and training in righteousness; and we can remember that You, by Your servant the Apostle Paul, have told us that this book was written for us. Lord, help us to hear this word in the light of that truth, and then by Your Spirit apply it to our own hearts and lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
This is the word of God:
“Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘The sons of Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’ households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance.
“‘Now those who camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of the standard of the camp of Judah, by their armies, and the leader of the sons of Judah: Nashon the son of Amminadab, and his army, even their numbered men, 74,600.
And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar, and the leader of the sons of Issachar: Nethanel the son of Zuar, and his army, even their numbered men, 54,400.
Then comes the tribe of Zebulun, and the leader of the sons of Zebulun: Eliab the son of Helon, and his army, even their numbered men, 57,400.
The total of the numbered men of the camp of Judah: 186,400, by their armies. They shall set out first.
“‘On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben by their armies, and the leader of the sons of Reuben: Elizur the son of Shedeur, and his army, even their numbered men, 46,500.
And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Simeon, and the leader of the sons of Simeon: Shelumiel, the son of Zurishaddai, and his army, even their numbered men, 59,300.
Then comes the tribe of Gad, and the leader of the sons of Gad: Eliasaph the son of Deuel…’”
[Some manuscripts say Rhuel, so you may have, depending on which Bible translation you’re reading from, you may have a different name there.]
“… ‘and his army, even their numbered men, 45,650.
The total of the numbered men of the camp of Reuben: 151,450 by their armies. And they shall set out second.
“ ‘Then the tent of meeting shall set out with the camp of the Levites in the midst of the camps; just as they camp, so they shall set out, every man in his place, by their standards.
“ ‘On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim by their armies, and the leader of the camp of Ephraim shall be Elishama the son of Ammihud, and his army, even their numbered men, 40,500.
And next to him shall be the tribe of Manasseh, and the leader of the sons of Manasseh: Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur, and his army, even their numbered men, 32,200.
Then comes the tribe of Benjamin, and the leader of the sons of Benjamin: Abidan the son of Gideoni, and his army, even their numbered men, 35,400.
The total of the numbered men of the camp of Ephraim: 108,100, by their armies. And they shall set out third.
“‘On the north side shall be the standard of the camp of Dan by their armies, and the leader of the sons of Dan: Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai, and his army, even their numbered men, 62,700.
And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Asher, and the leader of the sons of Asher: Pagiel the son of Ochran, and his army, even their numbered men, 41,500.
Then comes the tribe of Naphtali, and the leader of the sons of Naphtali: Ahira the son of Enan, and his army, even their numbered men, 53,400.
The total of the numbered men of the camp of Dan, was 157,600. They shall set out last by their standards.”
“These are the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’ households; the total of the numbered men of the camps by their armies, 603,550. The Levites, however, were not numbered among the sons of Israel, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Thus the sons of Israel did; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so they camped by their standards, and so they set out, every one by his family, according to his father’s household.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Six things I want you to see tonight from this great passage, and the first thing is simply this:
I. How are the tribes arranged?
They are arranged like an army marching into battle. That is not simply symbolic: it’s literal, in this case. This is an army being prepared for battle. But the point that we need to understand is that God’s people are an army assembled for war in this world. Now before we give any qualification to that, especially in the context of our own day and time in which another major world religion expresses its view of its believers and followers lives in this world in terms of jihad, let’s consider why and where we learn this truth from in this passage.
Notice first of all, repeatedly — repeatedly — the phrase “…by their armies” or, in some of your translations, “…by their companies” or, in some of your translations, “…by their hosts” is repeated. All of those are military terms. They are repeated deliberately in the passage because Moses wants you to get a picture of the people of God organized as an army marching towards the promised land. They will literally be subject to attack and ambush in the wilderness by their enemies. There’s a reason, for instance, that the tribe of Dan is off to the left and leaves last in the marching order, because we’re told that they were particularly good warriors. Now, if you wanted to protect a vulnerable army from surprise attack from the rear or the flank, where would you want to have some good warriors? But Moses wants you to understand that this is a fighting formation, and there is a message in that for us.
Yes, it’s a message which we saw in the Book of Exodus, and it’s a message we’re going to see repeatedly here, and it’s a message we talked about last week when the people of God were numbered as a muster. It’s simply this: that the Christian life is a life of warfare, and we are called into the Lord’s army. That’s not just a cute song that the children sing when they’re three. That’s real. And one of the greatest problems in the Christian life is that we don’t believe that it’s real…or at least, we don’t act like it.
We want the Christian life to be more like a cruise…a vacation…a holiday. And here’s God at the very outset of the word reminding us that He hasn’t invited you along on a cruise. He’s invited you to war.
Now I need to say very quickly that this war is utterly unlike the jihad that has been propagated not simply by the extremists who are the followers of Islam, but by the prophet of Islam, and by the Koran, which is the foundation of Islam, and has been held to for over thirteen centuries by Muslims. This warfare that we’re called to is not our conquest to make the world subservient to us. This warfare is a warfare against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and it is a conspiracy for us in which we seek to bless the world, to serve the world for God’s sake, to see the world enjoy the favors and the blessings that God has bestowed on us. And so this aggression to which we are called is not self-serving and it does not do harm to our fellow human beings created in the image of God. No, it is designed to do them everlasting good. There is absolutely no point of comparison between the view of life as warfare between Christianity and Islam. They are 180 degrees opposite. But we must never forget the Christian life is war.
II. Secondly, who is in the center of this formation?
Well, we could ask the question first, “What is in the center of this formation?” The tent of meeting. And what is in the tent of meeting? The ark of the covenant. And what is the ark of the covenant? It is the visible, tangible, symbolic manifestation of the nearness, the presence of God with His people. So who is in the middle of this formation? God. God Himself, Moses is reminding us, is at the center of our life, of our mission, of our purpose in this world. God the King is in the very center of this formation.
We know how Ramses II in the thirteenth century ordered his armies when he went out to battle, which I would estimate would have been about a hundred years after this is happening. And do you know how he ordered his armies? Just like this. In other words, Moses is giving them a battle formation that they would have recognized. The children of Israel would have seen this battle formation, and guess where Ramses’ tent was in his battle formation? Right smack dab in the middle. The king was in the middle. And when the tent of meeting went in the middle, the people of God understood the lesson. The King is in the middle. God is right in the center of this. You see it in the diagram of formation right before you. The message is unmistakable: God is at the heart of this; God is at the center of this. God is the one who gives kingly leadership. God is the one who is the center of our life, and our mission, and our purpose in this world; and when we live otherwise as Christians, things always go awry.
III. Thirdly, what is God living in, in the middle of the formation?
Yes, it’s a tabernacle. Yes, it’s nice! No, it’s more than nice–it’s gorgeous! It’s lavish, it’s expensive…but it could have fit in this room. You understand that. The tabernacle would have fit in this room. The God who flung the galaxies into space by the word of His power was living in a tent while His people went through the wilderness in a tent.
One of our elders prayed tonight about the glorious truth of the omnipresence of God: God is everywhere. But this passage is reminding you that in a special way God is exceedingly near to His people.
You know, God makes this point to David in II Samuel. You remember when David has just moved into his new palace in Jerusalem. He looks out his window, and out of the window of his palace, what does he see? He sees a tent. This tent. And he knows that it’s wrong for him, the mere human king of Israel, to be living in a palace while God’s ark of the covenant is in a tent. And so he says to his dear, dear friend, Nathan the prophet, ‘Nathan, it’s wrong for me to live in a palace while God’s ark of the covenant is in a tent. I want to build God a palace. I want to build Him a house. I want to build Him a temple.’ And God comes to Nathan that night and says ‘Nathan, I want you to tell David something.’ Do you remember what He says to him? He says ‘David, when My people were wandering through the wilderness in tents, I lived in a tent with them. Where in all of those years did I ever ask them to build me a palace?’ So you don’t have to wait until the New Testament until God draws near to His people. God’s whole point to David was ‘When My people were in the wilderness in tents, I was there in a tent with them’ because that’s the kind of God I am. I don’t ask My people to do what I am not prepared to do with them Myself.’
And that is a truth which we can ill afford to forget in this life: that when that diagnosis comes in and you are tempted to say “Where is God?” the answer comes, Christian, ‘I’m right next to you.’ In fact, the new covenant answer to that is ‘You’re the temple of the Holy Spirit. I dwell in you. Where am I? You don’t have to ask the question. I dwell in your midst. I’m not somewhere off in the distance. I’m right there with you. I don’t have to read a book about your sufferings. I’m right there with you. I don’t need to be explained to second-hand what human suffering entails. I’m right there with you.’
God lives in a tent with His people as they wander in the wilderness in their tents; God in the gospel is near to His people.
IV. Where are the tribes.
Now, one thing we do need to recognize is that in these formations the outer tribes are some distance from that tent of meeting, and there are people in between them and the tent of meeting. In fact, the outer tribes are probably 1,000 yards from the tent of meeting. Ten football fields! And then there are the priests and the Levites ringed around them.
Now don’t we learn something there about holding God in reverence and awe and not approaching Him except through a mediator? No one came into that tent except representatively through the priests and the Levites. There was a mediator needed. And you see, my friends, that’s the beauty of when we come to the Lord’s Table. You’ll see no Levite standing in front of that table saying ‘Uh-uh-uh…. Only through me.’ No, you see Christ displayed in the symbols of His body and blood shed for you with His arms open wide, saying ‘Come. Eat at My table.’ And the minister behind, not in front; not in between, but simply behind, serving the people of God, because you have been given that glorious access. Isn’t that what John 1 is all about? The Lord Jesus Christ Himself has come and tabernacled among us in our flesh, and He’s drawn near. At the end of the Gospel of John, Thomas is invited to thrust his fingers into the hands and side of Christ. That’s how near God’s people can get to Him in Christ.
Yes, God is to be held in respect, in reverence and awe, but in the new covenant we have such privileges that we are able to draw nearer–much nearer–to our blessed Lord in Jesus Christ.
V. God has appointed the place of every one of us in His people and family and body.
The arrangement of the tribes suggests a precedence and a divine decision regarding their various functions and abilities. Even reading it quickly tonight, you couldn’t have missed that Judah is in the vanguard. Where else would we expect the tribe of the Lion of Judah to be, but in the vanguard?
But isn’t this whole passage a pre-reminder of the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the body, in Romans and in I Corinthians? That there is a place for every one of us. We don’t have the same job, we don’t have the same precedence, we don’t have the same gifting, we don’t have the same abilities, but there is a place for every single one of us.
I wish I had time–maybe I will next week–to read you a quote from William Phillip about this very truth.
VI. The New Jerusalem
One last thing: You will see this formation again with your own eyes. Turn with me in your Bibles to the Book of Revelation. When John describes the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven in Revelation 21:10ff, do you notice how he describes it? What is the formation? There’s
“…A great high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates, twelve angels; the names were written on them, which were the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel. There were three…on the east, …three…on the north, …three…on the south, …three…on the west. The wall of the city has twelve foundation stones, and on them are written the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
And then there was a measurement taken. And how is the city laid out? As a square.
“…Its length as great as its width; and he measured the city with the rod, fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal.”
But then John notices something really strange about this city. It’s like no Jerusalem that John has ever seen before, because in verse 22 he says:
“And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are its temple.”
You’re going to see the formation again, friends, but this time no tent to hide the glory of the Lord; no temple to hide the glory of the Lord; no Holy of Holies to hide the glory of the Lord. The Lord Almighty and the Lamb will be in our midst, and we will see them with all their glory.
And then you will know that the battle is done.
Lord God, weary soldiers in the wilderness need to remember that there will be a time when the army will never need to move again, and we will behold the Captain of our salvation; and we will say “It is good.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let’s sing The Doxology. [Congregation sings.]
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.