January 23, 2008
With God in the Wilderness
The New Generation
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
I would invite you to take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to Numbers 26. This is a long chapter. It is a chapter in which Moses is commanded to do another census. You will remember that before the wilderness journey began, in Sinai, Moses had been commissioned to take a census of the people. And we were reminded in that census how faithful God had been to His promises to the children of Israel, even in their days in Egypt. Though they had gone down as seventy men, they had come out with a massive army, and that is made so clear in that census that was taken in Sinai.
But now a generation has come and gone; a generation has died in the wilderness because of their faithlessness, because of their sin, because of God’s judgment. And yet, at the end of this census you’re going to see a huge number of Israelites recorded — fighting men — to go into the land of Canaan. And this too will show the faithfulness of God, even in the midst of His judgment on the faithlessness of Israel.
There are a number of things that we won’t have time to explore, because it’s going to take a while to read the passage, and I don’t want to shortchange the word of God. It’s always been a pet peeve of mine when preachers stood up and said “I don’t have time to read the Scripture.” They don’t have time to read God’s word, but they have time to tell you about what they think about God’s word! I don’t want to shortchange the Scripture, because it’s God’s word speaking to you directly.
But maybe it will help you to look for three or four themes…and then let me give you a little structure to follow along in a passage as long in this. Some of your Bibles have paragraphs, and that will help you. But look for these four themes.
Look for the theme of preparation for warfare. I mean, after all, the taking of this census is in some part looking forward to the warfare that the children of Israel are going to experience as they go into the land of Canaan.
But there’s also the theme of inheritance, because at the end of the census Moses is going to make it clear that the inheritance of land in Canaan is to be directly proportionate to the size of the tribes. And so part of the story of this census is preparation for receiving inheritance. Keep that in mind.
Thirdly, look for the theme of warning. At least five times — maybe more, but at least five times — as we read through this census the census will contain words from Moses commenting about situations and incidents in the lives of various ones of the tribes that draw attention to sin and judgment, and thus warn us and Israel about our sin and about the certainty of God’s judgment against sin.
So, look for the themes of warfare, inheritance, warning, and grace. In this passage the marvelous grace of the Lord is manifest, and it’s actually manifest in a number of ways. But I want to draw your attention to one specific way. Perhaps looking for those things will help you as we journey through this passage, which is long itself, like the book of Numbers and like the wilderness wandering–65 verses.
Now structurally, this passage starts out in the first four verses with the command of God to Moses to take the census, and Moses’ announcement to the heads of families to take the census. Then it proceeds to work through each of the thirteen tribes of Israel. (No, that wasn’t a mistake: the thirteen tribes of Israel.) You remember twelve was a symbolic number in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Yes, there were twelve tribes of Israel if you count Joseph as one tribe, but in the numbering of Israel, Ephraim and Manasseh were half-tribes, and so if you add those up you end up with thirteen tribes. Just like in the New Testament you have twelve apostles once Jesus has a full complement, and then Judas is judged by God and so you’re down to eleven; and then the disciples pick another apostle in his place, so you’re back up to twelve; and then, Paul is called by God to be an apostle, and you end up with thirteen apostles. So twelve is a symbolic number, often a symbol of the full complement of all God’s people. And so thirteen tribes will be numbered in this passage tonight.
We’ll work starting with Reuben, interestingly. You remember, because of Reuben’s part in the plot against Joseph he was demoted from his position as first-born, but here he’s numbered first again, perhaps giving him deference as the first-born. And it will move all the way through the rest of the tribes, and then there will be some words of conclusion and comment which are actually pointing you to one of the fundamental messages that Moses wants to bring home to you. You’ll see it in verses 63-64, and then in the final concluding verse, verse 65.
Now with that description, let me pray, and then we’ll read God’s word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word. It is rich with truth. It is profitable for our lives. By Your Holy Spirit, show us the truth; by faith, enable us to embrace that truth; and then, by Your Holy Spirit, help us to live that truth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“After the plague, the Lord said to Moses and to Eleazar the son of Aaron, the priest, ‘Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, from twenty years old and upward, by their fathers’ houses, all in Israel who are able to go to war.,’ And Moses and Eleazar the priest spoke with them in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, ‘Take a census of the people, fro twenty years old and upward,’ as the Lord commanded Moses. The people of Israel who came out of the land of Egypt were:
“Reuben, the firstborn of Israel; the sons of Reuben: of Hanoch, the clan of the Hanochites; of Pallu, the clan of the Palluites; of Hezron, the clan of the Hezronites; of Carmi, the clan of the Carmites. These are the clans of the Reubenites, and those listed were 43,730. And the sons of Pallu: Eliab. The sons of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. These are the Dathan and Abiram, chosen from the congregation, who contended against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah, when they contended against the Lord and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up together with Korah, when that company died, when the fire devoured 250 men, and they became a warning. But the sons of Korah did not die.
“The sons of Simeon according to their clans: of Nemuel, the clan of the Nemuelites; of Jamin, the clan of the Jaminites; of Jachin, the clan of the Jachinites; of Zerah, the clan of the Zerahites; of Shaul, the clan of the Shaulites. These are the clans of the Simeonites, 22,200.
“The sons of Gad according to their clans: of Zephon, the clan of the Zephonites; of Haggi, the clan of the Haggites; of Shuni, the clan of the Shunites; of Oznit, the clan of the Oznites; or Eri, the clan of the Erites; of Arod, the clan of the Arodites; of Areli, the clan of the Arelites. These are the clans of the sons of Gad as they were listed, 40,500.
“The sons of Judah were Er and Onan, and Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan.” [By the way, that’s referring to way back when, in the land of Canaan!] “And the sons of Judah according to their clans were: of Shelah, the clan of the Shelaniates; of Perez, the clan of the Perizites; of Zerah, the clan of the Zerahites. And the sons of Perez were: of Hezron, the clan of the Hezronites; of Hamul, the clan of the Hamulites. These are the clans of Judah as they were listed, 76,500.
“The sons of Issachar according to their clans: of Tola, the clan of the Tolaites; of Puvah, the clan of the Punites; of Jashub, the clan of the Jashubites; of Shimron, the clan of the Shimronites. These are the clans of Issachar as they were listed, 64,300.
“The sons of Zebulun, according to their clans: of Sered, the clan of the Seredites; of Elon, the clan of the Elonites; of Jahleel, the clan of the Jahleelites. These are the clans of the Zebulunites as they were listed, 60,500.
“The sons of Joseph according to their clans: Manasseh and Ephraim. The sons of Manasseh: of Machir, the clan of the Machirites; and Machir was the father of Gilead; of Gilead, the clan of the Gileadites. These are the sons of Gilead: of Iezer, the clan of the Iezerites; of Helek, the clan of the Helekites; and of Asriel, the clan of the Asrielites; and of Shechem, the clan of the Shechemites; and of Shemida, the clan of the Shemidaites; of Hepher, the clan of the Hepherites. Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but daughters.” [Hold that thought for Sunday night, because we’re coming back to this passage’s successor in Numbers 27 on Sunday night, and you’ll follow up on these daughters and what the Lord did in their lives. But hold that thought in the back of your mind.] “And the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. These are the clans of Manasseh, and those listed were 52,700.
“And the sons of Ephraim according to their clans: of Shuthelah, the clans of the Shuthelahites; of Becher, the clan of the Becherites; of Tahan, the clan of the Tahanites. And these are the sons of Shuthelah: of Eran, the clan of the Eranites. These are the clans of the sons of Ephraim as they were listed, 32,500. These are the sons of Joseph according to their clans.
“The sons of Benjamin according to their clans: of Bela, the clan of the Belaites; of Ashbel, the clan of the Ashbelites; of Ahiram, the clan of the Ahiramites; of Shephupham, the clan of the Shuphamites; of Hupham, the clan of the Huphamites. And the sons of Bela were Ard and Naam: of Ard, the clan of the Ardites; of Naaman, the clan of the Naamites. These are the sons of Benjamin according to their clans, and those listed were 45,600.
“These are the sons of Dan according to their clans: of Shuham, the clan of the Shuhamites. These are the clans of Dan according to their clans. All the clans of the Shuhamites, as they were listed, were 64,400.
“The sons of Asher according to their clans: of Imnah, the clan of the Imnites; of Ishvi, the clan of the Ishvites; of Beriah, the clan of the Beriites. Of the sons of Beriah: of Heber, the clan of the Heberites; of Malchiel, the clan of the Malchielites. And the name of the daughter of Asher was Serah. These are the clans of the sons of Asher as they were listed, 53,400.
“The sons of Naphtali according to their clans: of Jahzeel, the clan of the Jahzeelites; of Guni, the clan of the Gunites; of Jezer, the clan of the Jezerites; of Shillem, the clan of the Shillemites. These are the clans of Naphtali according to their clans, and those listed were 45,400.
“This was the list of the people of Israel, 601,730.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Among these the land shall be divided for inheritance according to the number of names. Toa large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance in proportion to its list. But the land shall be divided by lot. According to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. Their inheritance shall be divided according to lot between the larger and the smaller.’
“This was the list of the Levites according to their clans: of Gershon, the clan of the Gershonites; of Kohath, the clan of the Kohathites; of Merari, the clan of the Merarites. These are the clans of Levi: the clan of the Libnites, the clan of the Hebronites, the clan of the Mahlites, the clan of the Mushites, the clan of the Korahites. And Kohath was the father of Amram. The name of Amram’s wife was Jochebed the daughter of Levi, who was born to Levi in Egypt. And she bore to Amram Aaron and Moses and Miriam their sister. And to Aaron were born Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. But Nadab and Abihu died when they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord. And those listed were 23,000, every male from a month old and upward. For they were not listed among the people of Israel because there was no inheritance given to them among the people of Israel.
“These were those listed by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who listed the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. But among these there was not one of those listed by Moses and Aaron the priest, who had listed the people of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, ‘They shall die in the wilderness.’ Not one of them was left, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
I want you to see three things briefly tonight. I want you to see what this passage shows us about warfare and inheritance; secondly, I want you to see what this passage gives us by way of warnings; and then, thirdly, I want to point to one sign of grace which is displayed so beautifully in this story recorded for us in the midst of a census.
I. First, the theme of warfare and inheritance.
The Christian life entails journey, warfare, and inheritance, and all three of those themes are on display in the book of Numbers–and of course throughout the Pentateuch, throughout the Torah, throughout the five books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).
The whole of Numbers is the record of a long journey. There are some battles recorded, but it’s primarily a book of journey. When we get to the book of Joshua, it will be a book of battles, and this census is taken for the purpose of preparing the people of God to receive the inheritance that had been promised to them. So notice how Moses is drawing our attention to the themes of journeying, wandering in the wilderness; battle, fighting the enemies of the people of God; and, inheritance, receiving the promised mercies of God in the land.
All three of those are standard components of the life of the Old Testament believer; all those three things are standard components of the life of the New Testament believer. It’s so important for us to realize that. Some of you tonight are here and you are in the midst of a long journey, and you’re taking it one step at a time. But it’s plodding, and sometimes it’s monotonous, and it’s tiring. Sometimes you feel as if the end is not in sight. Well, the theme of the inheritance is there to encourage you when you’re in the midst of the journey. And the theme of the journey is there to remind you that you are not unique in having to follow that long and winding road, trusting in the Lord, sometimes not knowing where the next bend is coming or what is waiting for you when you get around that curve. You are not alone, and there is an inheritance waiting for you.
On the other hand, the very numbering of the people of God into a fighting force of over 600,000 men above the age of twenty is designed to remind the people of God — what? — you’d better be ready to strap it on, because we’re getting ready to go into the land of Canaan, and it’s going to be a fight. And the reason you’re being numbered is because you are soldiers of the living God. And how important it is for us to remember that! We were built for warfare in this world; the Apostle Paul was fond of reminding us that we are soldiers of Christ, and we are to be good soldiers for the living God. We should not be surprised by war in this world — war with the world, the flesh, and the devil. That is standard for this fallen world. Peace? That’s a gift and a blessing, but it’s not the normal state in the sense of cessation of hostility with the world and the flesh and the devil. Yes, we experience the peace that passes understanding, but that does not mean that we experience peace by way of our situation in context in this world. That peace is being granted to us in the midst of a world where there is no peace. And so those themes of warfare and inheritance in this passage are designed for our encouragement.
There is much more that we could say about that, and we’ll have opportunity to say much more about it next Lord’s Day evening when we look at the inheritances that are spoken of in chapter 27.
But let’s go on to the second point, and that is warnings. Here in this passage we come face to face with at least five warnings that are recorded for us by Moses as he goes through the listing of the census, and the heads of the families and the numbers of the tribes. Let me just point you to five of these warnings.
The first one you get in the very first three words of the English translation of the chapter: “After the plague.” Immediately your mind is drawn back to that sad, sad story that we studied the last time together. God had protected Israel against the sorcerer Balaam, but Israel’s own sin brought upon Israel the death of 24,000 potential soldiers. Twenty-four thousand that could have been shoulder to shoulder with the children of Israel when they went into the land of Canaan were no longer there because of the sins of Israel. What Moses is reminding us of there is the consequences of sin. It’s a warning: sin has serious consequences. You could even say it’s an Old Testament version of Romans 6:23 — “The wages of sin is death.”
Secondly, if you look at verse 10, as Moses is going through and he’s numbering the Reubenites, he stops. And he’s just mentioned the sons of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. And it’s as if he stops and says, ‘Yes, that Dathan and that Abiram. Yes, Dathan and Abiram who were a part of the Koahite rebellion against God.’
Korah had rebelled against Moses and Aaron, the God-appointed leaders of Israel, and therefore he had rebelled against the Lord himself. And God swallowed him up with the earth, and a great company died, and 250 were devoured by fire. And this was a warning to Israel. What’s the message there? Children of Israel, if you contend against the ones that the Lord has placed over you, you might as well contend against the Lord himself, and He will judge you. What a solemn and sadly necessary warning that will be, because unfortunately Israel’s rebellion against their leaders won’t stop in the wilderness; it will continue even in the land of Canaan.
Third, there’s the very interesting mention in verse 19 of Onan and Er, the sons of Judah. Moses doesn’t say anything but this: “Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan.” Well, go back and follow your cross references out, and those cross references will take you right back to the book of Genesis, which Moses also wrote. And Moses will record there God’s judgment on both Er and Onan for their wickedness. And it’s as if Moses is saying, ‘And you know what? Judah’s sons Er and Onan didn’t even get out of Canaan in the first place, because of God’s judgment against them.’ Moses is reminding us of previous judgments against sin. In other words, God is consistent in judging sin.
Fourth, if you look at verse 61, even as Moses is numbering the names of the sons of Aaron, he mentions his first two sons, Nadab and Abihu. And he tells us in verse 61 that Nadab and Abihu died when they offered unauthorized fire before the Lord. They failed to worship God according to His command, and they died for it. Oh, if the children of Israel had listened to that warning, wouldn’t the history of Israel be different! It was a warning to the children of Israel that they should only worship according to God’s word, because God was ready to bring judgment even on the sons, the firstborn sons of Aaron the high priest, if they were unfaithful to His word. And yet what will the history of Israel record? Over and over Israel does what? They go after other gods, and they worship and serve other than the one true and living God. And they are judged for it.
The fifth thing you’ll see in verses 63-65, and we’re arrested, aren’t we, by the words recorded in verse 64: After the census was done, there was not one listed in that census that was taken in Moab at the Jordan by Jericho. There was not one head of family, there was not one leader in Israel that was also listed in the census that was taken by Aaron and Moses at Sinai, except Caleb and Joshua, who had been the only ones who had believed what the Lord said. And the Lord had said, ‘These two I will bring into the land; the rest of you who said that I would forsake you, I will. You didn’t trust Me, and you will not enter into the land.’ Not one from the first census is numbered.
All of these things, you see, are warnings. They are warnings about trusting God. They’re warnings about false worship. They’re warnings about going after other gods. They’re warnings about the judgment against sin. Hidden in this census are repeated warnings against sin for the people of God, just as relevant for us today as they were for the children of Israel all those hundreds of years ago.
One last thing that I want you to see. In the midst of these warnings — solemn warnings, sobering warnings, stern judgments of God — in the midst of all these warnings, there are many signs of grace. I just want to draw your attention to one. You’ll see it in verse 11.
Right after Moses has reminded you about Dathan and Abiram, right after he has reminded you of the rebellion of Korah, he says something very, very interesting in verse 11: “But the sons of Korah did not die.” Isn’t that a mercy? Korah rebelled, but the sons of Korah did not die in their father’s rebellion. And wasn’t that a grace to them, and isn’t it a grace to us? Because, my friends, the sons of Korah wrote Psalm 42, Psalm 44, Psalm 45, Psalm 46, Psalm 47, Psalm 48, Psalm 49, Psalm 84, Psalm 85, Psalm 87, Psalm 88. God in His mercy spared the sons of that rebellious Korah, and they went on to write the praises of God which we still sing and lift up in tears to the living God, and hear read to us as a means of grace from the living God. Even in the midst of the warnings there are signs of grace, and Moses reminds us of that, and he points us to those sons of Korah who were spared.
All of this and more we can learn from this great passage; even in a census there is meat for the journey of believers. Take it and eat.
Lord God, thank You for Your word. It is so rich, even passages that record seemingly endless and irrelevant numbers and names, You hold blessings aplenty in store for us. We thank You for that, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Would you stand and receive God’s blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.