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Chapter 2


The Numbered People



“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, Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, after their families, by the house of their fathers, with the number of their names, every male by their polls; From twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel: thou and Aaron shall number them by their armies. And with you there shall be a man of every tribe; every one head of the house of his fathers..…And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses, so did they. (Numbers 1:1-54)


The first four chapters of the Book of Numbers deals with the numbering of the children of Israel, by which the camp of Israel was set up around the tabernacle and the responsibilities to each family (tribe) were assigned by divine order. In the Book of Exodus, Israel was delivered from Egyptian bondage and slavery. The Lord God miraculously set them free from 400 years of captivity. They marched through the Red Sea and saw God destroy Pharaoh and the Egyptian armies in the sea. Miraculously, day after day, God guided them, provided for them, and protected them as they marched through the desert wilderness.


            When they got to Mount Sinai, the Lord Jehovah appeared to them in a spectacular way. God called Moses up on the mountain and gave him the law. While Moses was on the mountain receiving God’s holy law on tables of stone, Israel was led by Aaron to make and worship a golden calf and called it the worship of Jehovah!


            In the Book of Leviticus, while they were still encamped around Sinai, the Lord God, the God of all grace (in all the typology of the tabernacle, the priesthood, the sacrifices, and ordinances of divine worship), showed them how he would accomplish the salvation of his chosen people by the doing and dying of his Son, the Lord Jesus. At the end of the Book of Leviticus, Israel had been out of Egypt for a little more than a year. Exodus covered a year. Leviticus covered only a month.


            Then, we come to the Book of Numbers. Numbers encompasses more than 38 years. This third book of Moses tells us what happened during those 38 years. The Hebrew title of this book gives us an idea of its theme. In Hebrew this book is titled “In the Wilderness” instead of Numbers. — The Book of Numbers is all about Israel in the wilderness. It is a picture of God’s church, the Israel of God, God’s elect in this wilderness of woe, called earth.


            There is in this world of woe a people chosen and redeemed by God, a people for whom all the wonders of providence are performed, a people chosen and numbered for war, a people who shall be crowned with all the glory of heaven when their journey is done. That is the message of the Book of Numbers. That is what the Book of Numbers is all about.


A Numbered People


The Book of Numbers is all about a numbered people. The children of Israel, I remind you, were “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). They represented God’s elect, God’s covenant people, the Israel of God, the church, God’s holy nation and royal priesthood. Everything that happened to those people, throughout their history in the Old Testament Scriptures, happened by divine appointment for us, for our learning, for our instruction, as examples of God’s saving grace given to us and wrought in us (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).


            Observe these numbered people closely. They were a people snatched by God’s hand from tyrannizing foes. A miracle of care supplied their daily needs. A moving pillar of fire and of cloud guided them in their way. God has given them his law. He has fenced them off from all other people by circumcision and by their distinct, peculiar worship.


            Their contact with the world is broken. They move amid the nations of the earth as strangers and pilgrims, odd-balls, eccentrics, peculiar, strange people, unknown by the world around them. God is with them. His sheltering arms is their defense. Goodness and mercy guard their every step. The land of promised rest is the horizon of their hope.


            Child of God, as we read Israel’s history, we are looking into a mirror. They picture our heavenly Father’s special dealings with every heaven-born soul, a picture of every believing sinner. In every age and place there is an Israel thus mercifully loved, and led, and fed. Like them, we often err and fail. Like them, we often sin and stray. Like them, we are miraculously preserved.


            We should always see ourselves in Israel’s history. Our every step finds counterpart in them. The parallel is obvious. They once groaned bitterly in cruel bondage. But mercy set them free. Believer, you too were once a slave at Satan’s will. He ruled you with an iron yoke. But now the chain is broken, and you rejoice. You are now the ransomed freed-man of the Lord!


            By his commandment to number the people, the Lord God graciously kept a detailed and precise record by which the genealogy of our Savior might be traced (Hebrews 7:14). And by numbering his people, the Lord Jehovah seems to say, “The rest of the world matters nothing to me. You are my singular people, my jewels, precious to me.” — That is precisely what he says (Isaiah 43:1-4; Romans 9:11-27; Titus 2:11-14).


People in a Wilderness


The people before us are people in a wilderness; for them a wilderness of woe, an empty, desolate desert, a place of much pain and sorrow. The wilderness was never meant to be Israel’s destination. God’s intention was to bring them into the Promised Land of Canaan. The wilderness was intended as a temporary place, a place through which to move, not a place in which to live.


            Israel’s tribes journeyed as strangers through a desert-waste. Is not that the case with you? The abiding place is not here. Our rest is just over there, just across the hill, on the other side of the river.


            Israel was escorted and protected by a heavenly guide. So, too, the hand of the Almighty has marked out our course for us and is our guide by day and by night. Is your soul needy? The bread of life fails not. Are you thirsty? The water of life is ever springing.


            They had heard the thundering of God’s law and trembled for a mediator. So, too, God’s holy law has pierced the deep recesses of our souls. We have learned by the gospel of both our sin and the glorious righteousness of God in Christ. We have been convinced by the Spirit of God of sin, righteousness, and judgment: our sin, the righteousness of God in the doing and dying of the Lord Jesus Christ, and judgment executed and finished by Christ’s substitutionary atonement.


            Was Israel God’s special portion? You, too, are not your own. You are a purchased property, his peculiar people.


            Before the people move from Sinai, God gives command to register the Number of each tribe. Account must be distinctly taken. All names must be recorded. Their multitudes must all be reckoned and exactly known. Things that are numbered are chosen things; and you are his elect, chosen of God. Numbered things are prized by those who possess them; and the Lord God has made you precious in his sight. Numbered things are protected things; and you are the apple of his eye.


            In the numbering of Israel we read rightly, if we read God’s special love. His people are numbered because they are loved. O my soul, come bow before the God of all grace for his great love! It’s worth exceeds all worlds. — My God loves me! — My name is in his heart! — The Lord of all creation prizes me as one of his chosen jewels!


            Why was the Lord Jesus sent to bear your sins? Why has he robed you in his righteousness? Why did Jehovah inflict on him the hell-pains which were justly yours? Why was Christ slain? Why are you spared? There can be only one reply. — God loves you!


            Why did the Spirit of God awaken you from your spiritual death? Why did he show you your ruin? Why did he reveal Christ to you? Why did he melt your stony heart and give you faith in his dear Son? There can be only one reply. — God loves you!


            How is it that your little boat still rides above the raging billows of an engulfing world? How is it that your tottering feet are still upheld along the slippery hill which leads to Zion’s heights? The strength is not your own. It is most freely given. There can be only one reply. — God loves you!


            When did this love begin? Tell me when God began to be; and I will tell you when his love began. This love will expire when God is no more God. It is everlasting love, from everlasting to everlasting.

God loves you! What an amazing impulse to bear the willing servant over all mountains of doubt, and fear, and hindrance!God loves me! What a strong shield to ward off Satan’s darts! — God loves us! What a soft, sweet pillow of unfailing peace! — God loves us! What a great light in the dark day of trial! — God loves me! What a cordial of invigorating comfort. — God loves us! What a blessed foretaste of a sure heaven!


A Time of War


The children of Israel were numbered for a time of war. None were numbered, but those whose age and strength fitted them for war. It was God’s wise, good, and gracious intention that his people spend 40 years at war. Surely, every person here who has experienced and is experiencing God’s saving grace in Christ sees the picture before us. — It is by the wise, good, and gracious purpose of God that his people live the days of their lives appointed by him at war, never at ease but at war, never at peace but at war.


            We are at war with the world. The world presents its countless troops. All are quick to wound and skilled to capture. The cares of the world wrap us like weeds wrap a stalk of corn, and keep wrapping until they have choked out all life, except God himself keep us. The deceitfulness of riches, the love of the world. and the religion of the world are all relentless foes (1 John 2:15-18).


            We are at war with the flesh, too. The flesh is an internal foe, haunting the secret chambers of the heart, and entwined around our very being. What pride, what horrid self-righteousness, what vile unbelief we contend with every hour! The flesh, all that is born of the flesh is of the devil. It gives no respite. No respite can be given to it


            And we are at war with the devil! Satan roars! He deceives! He whispers! He insinuates! He assaults! We must relentlessly resist him!


            Believer, yours is a warrior’s life. Fight, as one fighting for eternity. Strive, as one striving for a kingdom. March, as one resolute to take heaven by storm. The Lord Jesus Christ calls. He commands. He leads. Follow him boldly. Follow him faithfully.


         Why? Why has our God chosen thus to save us? — “To the praise of the glory of his grace!” He could have saved us and taken each heaven born soul immediately to heaven, as he did the dying thief. But three times he tells us in the first chapter of Ephesians, he saves the way he saves to the praise of his glory, to the praise of the glory of his grace in Christ in sovereign election, eternal predestination, blood atonement, and effectual grace.


A Waiting Crown


For this numbered people there was a waiting crown — Canaan! The numbered host was numbered for the fight. The fighting host will soon shout,Victory!” No one will triumph, who has never fought. No one, who truly fights, will fail.


“For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).


A Substitution Made


In the numbering of Israel and the specific exemption of the Levites from the numbering, a substitution was made.


“But the Levites after the tribe of their fathers were not numbered among them. For the LORD had spoken unto Moses, saying, Only thou shalt not number the tribe of Levi, neither take the sum of them among the children of Israel: But thou shalt appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of testimony, and over all the vessels thereof, and over all things that belong to it: they shall bear the tabernacle, and all the vessels thereof; and they shall minister unto it, and shall encamp round about the tabernacle.” (Numbers 1:47-50)


            Back in Exodus 13:2 the Lord God said, “Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.” God took the Levites as substitutes for the firstborn.


“And I, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn that openeth the matrix among the children of Israel: therefore the Levites shall be mine; Because all the firstborn are mine; for on the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I hallowed unto me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast: mine shall they be: I am the LORD.” (Numbers 3:12-13)


            Wondrous grace! Wondrous, wondrous grace! — The holy Lord God took his own dear Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, in our stead! And he takes us, his loved, chosen, numbered people in Christ’s stead! The ransom price for all those numbered of God is exactly the same (Exodus 30:12-15). The silver of the sanctuary of God, the price of our atonement, is the precious blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:18-21).


“Under the blood of Jesus,

Safe in the Shepherd's fold.

Under the blood of Jesus,

Safe while the ages roll.

Safe though the worlds may crumble,

Safe though the stars grow dim.

Under the blood of Jesus,

I am secure in Him.”




Don Fortner








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