January 10, 2007
Dr. Ligon Duncan III
I'd invite you to turn in your Bibles, if you have them, to the book of Numbers; and if you don't, there should be a sheet somewhere with the entire text of Numbers 1:1-54. I just want to remind you of a few things.
Last week we said that Numbers may not be one of your favorite books; it may not be one of the books that you most recently read; you may not list it in your “Top Ten” list of favorite Bible books; you may wonder how a study of Numbers could possibly be helpful or relevant to those of us living in the twenty-first century, the dawn of a new millennium in the very different day and age. But last week we urged several reasons why we ought to appreciate this book. We said, yes, this is a book full of history, and a lot of people don't like history. Henry Ford typifies the American attitude towards history. Remember what Henry Ford said about history? “History is bunk!” he said. And most Americans think just like that. In fact, one British intellectual historian said that war is God's way of teaching Americans history and geography. But even if you don't love history, the Apostle Paul shows you why you ought to love Numbers.
Secondly, last week we said some people don't like Numbers because it's a depressing book filled with stories of people that behaved terribly. Well? Exactly! That's the whole point! They’re just like us, and if you’re going to learn how to live life in the wilderness, if you’re going to learn how to deal with temptation and sin, it might be helpful to read about people that live life in the wilderness and struggle with temptation and sin. And so it's exactly what we need for today. It may be depressing, but, boy, is it real! And in our culture, especially in this culture here in Jackson, still a Bible Belt culture, but a culture characterized by nominal Christianity which would rather deal with sin by denial than realistically addressing it, Numbers is a good book for us to study.
Thirdly, we said some people don't like this book because it's filled with stories, but then the flow of those stories is broken up by these long sections with strange laws and bizarre procedures and regulations. But, first of all, Moses is a really good storyteller, and these stories are riveting. And, secondly, as you study the book you’ll find out that there's a logic to the laws and the regulations in relation to the story. There's a divine logic that flows through the whole book.
Well, of course, more importantly we said last week that the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 10:1-13, tells us that Moses wrote Numbers for you and me. The Apostle Paul explicitly said that the stories of God's people's wanderings in the wilderness were written and even happened for us, on whom the end of the ages has come. Now that's the Apostle Paul's long, sort of phraseological term for Christians: those of us upon whom the end of the ages has come. In other words, these things happened and were recorded for you and for me, believers in the Lord Jesus Christ living in the twenty-first century…of course, for all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who have ever lived, are living now, and ever will live. But he's saying that these stories from now almost 3500 years ago were written for Christians, and that ought to be a very encouraging thing.
We walked through I Corinthians 10:1-13, and we saw how in verses 5 and 6 the Apostle Paul said that these events occurred (that are recorded in the book of Numbers) as an example to us. So we're supposed to get something out of them by way of example.
We saw in verse 6 that he explicitly says that these stories are recorded and given to us as a moral warning to us, to warn us about the failures and the slippage into temptation experienced by these old covenant believers. And again in verse 6, we're told that these things were recorded and happened as examples for us. Paul is simply driving home the practicality of Numbers there.
In verse 7, he says that these events provide a moral exhortation for New Testament Christians. They’re meant to exhort us in living the Christian life. In verses 7-10, the Apostle Paul says that these stories are at least designed to teach us four things: First, he says, not to be idolaters; second, not to be immoral; thirdly, not to presumptuously test God; and, fourthly, not to grumble. And all of those, the more you think about them (and believe me, we’ll get a chance to think about all four of those a lot during the book of Numbers, because they happen over and over again)…if you think about it a little bit, those things are very, very contemporary sins. You think idolatry is for people who scratch on rocks and make little idols? Oh, no! Idolatry is for Jacksonians. We’ll talk about some of our idolatries.
You think immorality is for people that lived in sub-civilized barbarian cultures? Oh, no! Immorality is for Jacksonians, and we’ll talk about that. You think grumbling is a problem that the Israelites had, but that we don't? Oh, no! Grumbling is a problem for us. So we’ll find the practicality of these particular warnings.
And then again, in verse 11, the Apostle Paul doesn't just say that these things were written for us; he says that they were not only recorded, but they actually happened for us. Think of it! Paul's saying that something that happened in the life of another human being happened because God wanted you to learn something! Whoa! That's huge–that God would spend the expensive, painful experiences of real flesh and blood human beings with you in mind. These are expensive examples. You know, human beings died in these temptations, and God was willing to do all of these things to bring exhortation to you. Boy, should our ears be wide open as we come to this book!
The Apostle Paul tells us that the negative stories that we’ll read, the bad behavior that we’ll read, ultimately it's not designed to depress you; it's actually designed to keep you from falling like they did. In other words, there's a positive purpose to these negative stories. He wants you to keep from stumbling like they did, keep from falling into the same traps that they did. He says that in verse 12. But he also wants to make sure that we don't think that we can't fall like they did. Oh, yes, we can! And some of us can testify to that with bitter tears.
But finally, of course, back in verse 4 the Apostle Paul has already told you that Numbers is also about Christ, and so even as we're trudging through the wilderness, we’ll keep finding our Savior there, and that shouldn't surprise us, either.
Now tonight we're going to read a long chapter. It's going to take a while to read this chapter, and I want to give you some encouragement at the outset. You’re going to run into some weird names in this chapter as you listen to it read and as you follow along with me. Now the good news is fifteen or more of those names at least you’ll already know. But some of them you won't. That's OK. They’re strange, strange names. Obscure names…sometimes names that just occur here and then nothing else is said about these folks, but even that is significant and we’ll say why in just a few moments.
Now you’re also going to see some huge numbers. For instance, take a look at verse 29. The tribe of Issachar is going to be numbered at 54,400 men. Now what are you supposed to get from that? Well, a little hint. When you hit those numbers, go back in your mind and see if you can remember how many people that Moses told you went into Egypt with Joseph and his family, and you compare that number with the numbers that I'm reading.
In fact, there are four things that I want you to be on the lookout for as we read through these verses. I want you to be on the lookout of an enormous point about the faithfulness of God to his promises. Secondly, I want you to be on the lookout for an enormous point about the providence of God. Thirdly, I want you to be on the lookout for an enormous point — hold on to your seats! — about the doctrine of election. This chapter proves beyond a shadow of a doubt and beyond refutation the doctrine of election. Now, one of the elders said to me beforehand, “I've already read this chapter; brother, I'm praying for you!” and let me tell you, I really appreciate that! One reason we tell you what we're reading ahead of time is so that you can read it. And believe me, the first time I read this chapter I had the same reaction as that elder! But my first reaction after reading this chapter was not to think that it was a chapter about the doctrine of election, but after studying it for a couple of weeks, it is. I’ll explain that later on. But fourth and finally, I want you to be looking for an enormous point about the Christian life as we read this chapter.
Now before we read God's word, let's pray and ask His help and blessing.
Lord, this is Your word, and as unfamiliar and strange as the names may sound, and as perplexing as it might be to us initially as to why You would spend a precious chapter in Your book to list the names, to list the numbers, to list the tribes of the Israelites in the wilderness, nevertheless, open our eyes to behold wonderful things from Your word. And so we ask, O God, that You would teach us by Your word, and that having reading Your word, having heard it read, having heard it proclaimed, that we would be able to say that all Scripture is given by inspiration, and is profitable for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God — so that the believer — will be equipped for every good work. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, ‘Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head from twenty years old and upward,’…
[Listen to this next phrase very closely; it's a tip-off on the fourth thing that I told you to look for.]
“‘…whoever is able to go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies.’…
[My friends, you are witnessing a muster for an army]
“…‘With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father's household.’…
[So every tribe's got to have a witness when this is being done. There needs to be somebody in every tribe that's going to understand the significance of these numbers that Moses and Aaron are going to collect, and they’re going to be able to go back to those tribes and talk about it.]
“…‘These then are the names of the men who shall stand with you:
of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur;
of Simeon, Shelumiel the son of Zurishaddai;
of Judah, Nahshon the son of Amminadab;
of Issachar, Nethanel the son of Zuar;
of Zebulun, Eliab the son of Helon;
of the sons of Joseph: of Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud;
of Manasseh, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur;
of Benjamin, Abidan the son of Gideoni;
of Dan, Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai;
of Asher, Pagiel the son of Ochran;
of Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel;
of Napthali, Ahira the son of Enan.
“These are they who were called of the congregation, the leaders of their fathers’ tribes; they were the heads of divisions of Israel.’ So Moses and Aaron took these men who had been designated by name, and they assembled all the congregation together on the first of the second month. Then they registered by ancestry in their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, from twenty years old and upward, head by head, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. So he numbered them in the wilderness of Sinai.
“Now the sons of Reuben, Israel's first-born, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Reuben, were 46,500.
“Of the sons of Simeon, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Simeon, were 59,300.
“Of the sons of Gad, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Gad, were 45,650.
“Of the sons of Judah, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Judah, were 74,600.
“Of the sons of Issachar, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Issachar, were 54,500.
“Of the sons of Zebulun, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Zebulun, were 57,400.
“Of the sons of Joseph, namely, of the sons of Ephraim, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Ephraim, were 40,500.
“Of the sons of Manasseh, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Manasseh, were 32,200.
“Of the sons of Benjamin, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Benjamin, were 35,400.
“Of the sons of Dan, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Dan, were 62,700.
“Of the sons of Asher, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Asher, were 41,500.
“Of the sons of Naphtali, their genealogical registration by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, head by head, every male from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war, their numbered men, of the tribe of Naphtali, were 53,400.
“These are the ones who were numbered, whom Moses and Aaron numbered, with the leaders of Israel, twelve men, each of whom was of his father's household. So all the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their father's households from twenty years old and upward, whoever was able to go out to war in Israel, even all the numbered men were 603,550.
“The Levites, however, were not numbered among them by their fathers’ tribe. For the Lord had spoken to Moses, saying, ‘Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor shall you take their census among the sons of Israel. But you shall appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings and over all that belongs to it. They shall carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it; they shall also camp around the tabernacle. So when the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle encamps, the Levites shall set it up. But the layman who comes near shall be put to death. And the sons of Israel shall camp, each man by his own camp, and each man by his own standard, according to their armies. But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall keep charge of the tabernacle of the testimony.’
“Thus the sons of Israel did; according to all which the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Now there is actually a lot to say about this chapter. I would love to camp on verses 47-54 alone and explore some of the riches contained in that passage, but just let me give you a general overview by pointing out four things: the faithfulness of God to His promises; the special providence of God over His people; the choice of God of His beloved; and, the call of the believer to a life of war. Let's look at each of those four things together.
First, why this list? Why this census? Why this roll call? Why this numbering of the males of fighting age according to the genealogies of the different households of the tribes of Israel at the outset of the book? What in the world is the significance of that? Why in the world would you want to spend a precious chapter of God's holy word writing that down? Four reasons.
I. The faithfulness of God to His promises.
First, to show God's faithful and gracious fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. A handful — literally, a handful — of Abraham's descendents had gone down into Egypt. You could have held them in one quarter of this room comfortably. Now in the wilderness — not even in the promised land! — their fighting men alone, excluding the Levites, number over 600,000…some of the tribes with 75,000 fighting men. Can you imagine a bigger, better way for God with a megaphone to say to the children of Israel ‘Friends, over 400 years ago I promised Abraham that I was going to make his seed, his children, his descendents, to be like sand on the seashore. I'm not done yet. You’re not even in the land, but look what I've already done. When I say something, I mean it. When I tell you I’ll do something, I’ll do it.’
You see, the very numbering of the fighting men of Israel demonstrates irrefutably God's faithful and gracious fulfillment of His promises to Abraham. In Genesis 12, God had promised it; in Genesis 15, He had reiterated it; in Genesis 17, He’d said it again; in Genesis 28, He’ll say it again. And the children of Israel are not even yet in the land. They haven't taken possession of Canaan, but God is already fulfilling His promise.
What's the point? God's word can be trusted. When He promises, He will do it. You can take God's word to the bank. And isn't that true with us as well? We, too, have not yet landed safe on Canaan's side, as we sang tonight. We’re not there yet. We know many who have, but we're not there yet, and yet we can say already God has been faithful to His promises. He hasn't finished yet. There's more to come. But already God has been faithful to His promises. That means when He does call us to walk by faith, not by sight, we can say ‘Lord, even by sight You have already shown us that Your word is worthy of our trust. Yes, Lord, I’ll walk by faith, because You can be trusted.’ That's the first thing I want you to see.
II. The special providence of God over His people.
The second thing is this: The kind, special providence of God over His people is illustrated in spades in this chapter. Why this numbering of Israel and of its fighting force? To show the particular care that God as a shepherd takes over His people. You know, even shepherds count their sheep. Junior high youth leaders count their sheep, especially on trips when they’re in busy places, because they know that when they come back a 96% success rate is not going to be satisfactory to all the parents of the church.
You number those sheep because they’re valuable to you, because it's your job to take care of them. And here's God at the outset saying ‘Number My people. I care for every single one of them. I'm their shepherd. I want to know exactly who they are. I want to know their number. I want to know their name. I want to know which tribe they’re in. I want to know who their daddy was, who their granddaddy was, who their great-granddaddy was, who their great-great-granddaddy was. I want to know who they marry. I want to know their children. I want to know every one of them.’
And so it's not so surprising, is it, when Jesus in the New Testament says ‘And, by the way, My Father – your heavenly Father – He doesn't just number you; He numbers the hairs on your head because He cares about you.’
So this passage is a gigantic megaphone where God says right into your ear ‘You’re My people. I care about you. I know where you come from. I know your name. I know how many you are.’ No, this passage shows the particular care of God the Shepherd, and the kind of care that He takes over Israel. It shows His kind providence over His people.
III. The choice of God of His beloved.
There's a third thing that we see in this passage, as well, and that is that in the numbering of God's people we see the unique privileges of believing Israel, and we see the unique choice of the sovereign God.
Notice in this passage it is not the mixed multitude with Israel, but it is Israel that is being numbered. Notice that it's not the Egyptians being numbered. It's not the Assyrians being numbered. It's not the Babylonians or Persians being numbered. It's not Germans being numbered. It's not Americans being numbered. It's not Indians being numbered. It's not Filipino's being numbered. I know I'm speaking anachronistically in all these things. The point is, of all the people in the world, who is being numbered here? Israel. My friends, even if you don't like the doctrine of election – case closed. God chose this people and only this people, and made promises to them, and they’re the only ones listed. This shows the unique privileges of believing Israel.
You know, this afternoon in preparation for reading this passage, I listened to a rabbi read this chapter using the Sephardic pronunciation of the Hebrew, and he was rifling along pretty good. It was different pronunciation than my Hebrew professor used when I was taking Hebrew in seminary, and he was a Jewish convert to Christianity who had gone to Hebrew school as a boy, so he's a pretty good reader of Hebrew aloud. But even with the sort of weird Sephardic pronunciations, over and over again there were words and phrases that I immediately recognized. And you would have, too. This isn't because I'm some sort of a Hebrew scholar. But when he said “Mosheh” you would have immediately known he was talking about Moses, and you would have recognized a lot of the other names. And I thought to myself, “Isn't that a blessing? That a descendant of pagan Picts and Celts in northeast Europe recognized the names of the tribes of the people of God being read by a Shaphardic rabbi? And what's more, that I know the God of Abraham?” That in and of itself is a proof of the electing, saving grace of God, because the gospel has come now not just to the Jew, but to the Gentile; to the barbarian, to the pagan, to the slave, to the Scythian, to the Greek–a trophy of God's grace.
IV. The children of Israel are prepared for war.
One last thing. This chapter is here because the children of Israel are being prepared for war. The Israelites weren't going on holiday to Canaan. They were going to war, and therefore the military roll needed to be taken and they needed to be mustered and organized in the camp, and that's exactly what happens in Numbers 1. And, my friends, that is a reminder to us that the Christian life is war. It is not war like our Sunni Muslim friends think, that the life of walking with God is war. No. We are engaged in a grand conspiracy to bless the world…to see the world conquered not for our own ends and glory and self-gratification, but for the everlasting glory of Jesus Christ, and for their everlasting good. We want to see the world conquered by the gospel so that we can serve them as our brothers and sisters. But even so, this life is war, because we will continually fight with the world, and the flesh, and the devil. And this, too, we learn from Numbers 1.
Heavenly Father, we love You and we love Your word. Teach us from it, we pray. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Let's stand and sing The Doxology.
Before I give you the benediction, let me just remind you that the Reeds are still right there in the back…to greet them — if not with a holy kiss, at least with a warm Presbyterian hug! And Phil, you've left the brochures over here on the table…so if you want to pick up a brochure about Voice of Calvary…. Thank you for that report, brother. It was so encouraging.
Now receive God's blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.