The Message of Numbers
Numbers is the fourth book of (i) the Pentateuch; (ii) the Old Testament; and (iii) the Bible.
(i) Numbers is the fourth book of the Pentateuch. It follows on from Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus. It is followed by Deuteronomy. The word, ‘Pentateuch’, is a Greek word. It means ‘five books’. In the Pentateuch, there are five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. To understand Numbers, we must go back to Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus and we must move beyond Numbers to Deuteronomy.
Genesis is ‘the book of beginnings’. It tells us about the beginning of creation (chapters 1-2). It tells us about the beginning of sin (chapter 3). It tells us about the beginning of salvation. In 3:15, we have the first promise of the Saviour.
Following the flood of judgment and the ark of salvation (chapters 6-9), the story moves on to God’s choice of Abraham. God’s promise was given to Abraham – ‘I will make of you a great nation’ (12:2). The nation of Israel, to whom the book of Numbers is addressed, is the fulfilment of this promise of God. Behind the nation of Israel, there is the God who chooses. As we read the book of Numbers, we must remember that God addresses Israel as His chosen people.
In Exodus, we see God as the God of redemption and Israel as His redeemed people. The people of Israel have been chosen by God. They have been redeemed by Him. He has brought them out of their slavery in Egypt.
Leviticus emphasizes that God’s chosen people are called to be holy. Redeemed by the Lord, they are called to live as His holy people. The key idea in Leviticus is expressed in 11:45 – ‘you shall be holy, for I am holy’.
In Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus, the people of Israel are described as a chosen people, a redeemed people and a holy people. In the opening chapter of Numbers, we learn that the people of God are to wage war for God. Notice the recurring phrase – ‘every man able to go forth to war’. If God’s purpose is to be fulfilled among the people of Israel, His people must be ready for warfare – spiritual warfare in which ‘the tabernacle of the testimony’ is to be at the heart of Israel’s life. The worship of God and the work of God are to be the chief priorities among the people of God.
Following Numbers, we have the fifth book of the Pentateuch – Deuteronomy. Numbers takes Israel to the borders of the Promised Land. Deuteronomy contains further instructions given to Israel as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Deuteronomy provides the link between the first four books of the Pentateuch and the remainder of the Old Testament.
(ii) Numbers is the fourth book of the Old Testament. Following its first five books, the Old Testament story continues, in the book of Joshua, with the conquest of Canaan. As we read of Israel’s warfare for God, we will understand why the first chapter of Numbers laid such emphasis on ‘every man able to go forth to war’. The Old Testament story continues through times of rebellion and times of revival. It ends with the distinct impression of incompleteness. The final words of the Old Testament are words of promise concerning what God is going to do in the future.
(iii) Numbers is the fourth book of the Bible. We do not look back to the book of Numbers because we want to become Old Testament Jews. We look back to the book of Numbers because it is part of the context out of which the Christian Faith has grown. To understand our Christian Faith, we need to go back to the Old Testament. We need to go back to the Pentateuch. As we do this, we will come to the book of Numbers.
This book will help us to see the divine significance of events. It will help us to see the bigger picture. Looking at the bigger picture – God’s saving purpose – we will see beyond the wilderness. We will look beyond the wilderness to the Promised Land. We will look beyond the Promised Land. We will catch a glimpse of something greater than ‘the land flowing with milk and honey’. Looking beyond the Promised Land, we will catch a glimpse of the promised Saviour – our Lord Jesus Christ.
The name, ‘Numbers’ comes from the fact that this book contains numberings, notably in chapters 1 and 26. In the fifth word of the first line of the Hebrew text, we have a far more appropriate title – ‘in the wilderness.’ What is the meaning of the events which took place while Israel was ‘in the wilderness?’ This is the question we must ask as we read the book of Numbers. From this book, we learn that the wilderness was both a place of promise and a place of danger. There was the Promised Land, lying ahead of them. There were the dangers which kept them ‘in the wilderness’ for much longer than they really needed to be.
The story of Numbers begins two years after Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. The people, who had been brought out of slavery in Egypt, are now learning to trust God in the wilderness. They are not, however, very good learners. For thirty-eight years, they were virtually at a standstill. As we read of their wilderness wanderings, their failure to move forward in faith and obedience, we are challenged regarding our own spiritual progress. If God’s people had advanced in their obedience to God, they would not have wandered in the wilderness for such a long time. Numbers tells us about their wilderness wanderings so that we might learn from their mistakes.
The events in the wilderness speak of danger, the danger of standing still when God wants His people to move forward. The events in the wilderness speak of promise, the encouraging assurance that God did not give up on His wayward people. In His sight, they were chosen, redeemed and holy.
Apply this to today’s Church. Where will we be thirty-eight years from now? There is the danger of drifting into years of spiritual wandering with no significant forward movement in God’s work. There is the promise of God’s faithfulness, the assurance that He will provide us with all that we need to carry His work forward. We must believe the promise and overcome the dangers.
How are we to enjoy God’s blessing? In chapter 2, we learn that God’s people were to be united around the tabernacle with no gaps in the ranks. This is a vital lesson for today’s Church. We are not to pull in different directions. We are to pull together, embodying in our worship and witness the beautiful spirit of co-operation which we see in chapter 7. If the work of the Lord is to make progress, there needs to be unity and co-operation. Everyone has their place in the ongoing work of the Lord. All who are willing to serve the Lord will find a place in His service.
Before we ever had thoughts of serving the Lord, He had thoughts of calling us into His service. Chapter 3, with its emphasis on numbering ‘every male from a month old and upward’, underlines the fact that God had been calling us into His service long before we ever had thoughts of serving Him. In chapter 4, we read about the numbering of ‘the sons from thirty years old to fifty years old, all who can enter the service, to do the work in the tent of meeting’. This emphasizes that the service of the Lord calls for maturity. There are two lessons for us here. (i) The Lord laid His hand upon us in salvation long before we ever reached out our hands for Him in service. (ii) If we are to be worthy servants of the Lord, we must press on to spiritual maturity.
Why is it that so many people, upon whom God’s hand has been laid early in life, never attain their true spiritual stature? Is it not because they have been distracted, allowing ‘self’ to intrude where only God should be? This was the problem with the people of Israel in the wilderness. Instead of God-centred blessing, they chose self-centred rebellion.
God wants to bless us. He wants us to enjoy the blessing, described in 6:24-26 – ‘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’. This blessing is given to us in the Name of the Lord (v. 27). Notice the threefold repetition of the Name of the Lord – ‘The Lord …’ (v. 24), ‘The Lord …’ (v. 25), ‘The Lord …’ (v.26). Scripture teaches us to think of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Reading this blessing in terms of our faith in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we read it thus: ‘May the Father bless …’ (v. 24), ‘May the Lord Jesus make …’ (v. 25), ‘May the Holy Spirit lift …’ (v. 26). There is no greater blessing than the blessing of the Lord. There is no greater Person to give the blessing than the Lord. What is the blessing the Lord wants to give to us? Three short words sum up the Lord’s blessing – keep (v. 24), shine (v. 25) and peace (v. 26).
- The Lord keeps us. What is it that keeps us going in the way of faith? Is it our own will-power? – ‘I will keep going. I will never give up.’ God’s Word tells us that there is something else. There is something much more important. It is the power of God. We are ‘kept by the power of God’ (1 Peter 1:5).
- The Lord makes His face to shine upon us. ‘The Lord will smile on you and be kind to you’. The Lord is a smiling God. He smiles upon us. He smiles upon us because He loves us. His smile is an expression of His love. The Lord gives us His joy – ‘unutterable and exalted joy’ (1 Peter 1:8). Look to the Lord. He will keep you believing. He will keep you rejoicing.
- The Lord gives us His peace. From ‘the God of peace’, we receive ‘the peace of God’. You may be having a tough time. You may not understand what’s going on in your life. You can, however, receive ‘the peace of God that passes all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7). We look at what’s happening to us. It causes us deep distress. We look beyond all of that. We catch a glimpse of something very much more wonderful. God is at work. He is working in our lives. He is doing a work which will bring ‘praise, glory and honour’ to Him. God is fulfilling His purpose – ‘the salvation of our souls’ (1 Peter 1:6-7, 9).
‘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’ (6:24-26). The people of Israel had heard these wonderful words. This was God’s Word to them in the wilderness. This was His promise of blessing. Sadly, they soon forgot the Word of the Lord. In 11:4, God’s people are described as ‘the rabble’. We read of their longing to go back to Egypt. Here, we are challenged concerning our own consecration. Do we long to go on with God? Do we long to go back to the world? The sad story of ‘the rabble’ is contained in the Word of God so that we might learn to avoid the dangers of going back to the world. We are to learn from their mistakes. We are to learn to go on with God.
The contrast between believing the promise of God and giving in to the dangers around us is brought out clearly in the story told in chapter 13. The twelve spies are sent into the land of Canaan. They are to spy out the land. The majority report was negative. It was only the minority –the believing minority – who came back with a stirring message which called the people on to greater heights of faith and obedience.
The majority gave a true report: ‘The people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified, and very large’ (13:28). The problem with their report was that it had a great deal to say about the difficulties and very little to say about the possibilities. This is always the way with unbelief. The focus of their attention was on the dangers. They should have paying more attention to the promise of God. The more we talk about the difficulties, the more we line up excuses for our own unbelief. If we are to move forward with God, we must learn to eliminate negative thinking. We must learn to be possibility thinkers. We must look beyond the difficulties to the God who has given His promise – ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’.
We learn the positive attitude of faith from Caleb and Joshua. Following the negative report of the majority, ‘Caleb quietened the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and occupy it; for we are well able to overcome it’ (13:30).
As we read of the contrast between the unbelieving majority report and the believing report given by Caleb and Joshua, we must ask ourselves the question: ‘Am I going with the crowd or am I taking my stand alongside ‘the faithful few who fought bravely to guard the nation’s life?’
The contrast between the unbelieving majority of ten and the believing testimony of two faithful men became the contrast between the older generation, whose heart was still in Egypt, and the new generation, who were looking forward to the new life in Canaan. Concerning the old generation and the new generation, God says, in 14:29-31, ‘Of all your number, numbered from twenty years old and upward, who have murmured against Me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb … and Joshua … But your little ones … I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised.’
This is the contrast between the old life and the new life. Before the new life can begin, the old life must die. The little ones, uncorrupted by Egyptian influences, had grown up under the nurture of God in the wilderness. They were to enter the land. They did not carry with them the corruption of the old life. They carried with them the promise of the new life.
If we are preoccupied with the old life, we will echo the complaining words of Israel: ‘Why have You made us come up out of Egypt, to bring us to this evil place?’ (20:5). If, on the other hand, we are rejoicing in the gift of new life in Christ, new life in the Spirit, we will read the words of 21:9 concerning looking to the bronze serpent for healing and life, and we will rejoice in the words of John 3:14-15: ‘As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.’ If we are truly seeking to live the new life of the Spirit, we will read the words of 21:17 – ‘Spring up, o well!’ – and we will pray for a deeper experience of the ‘rivers of living water’ of which Jesus speaks in John 7:38.
The importance of continuing to live the new life and refusing to go back to the old life is highlighted in the exclusion of Moses and Aaron from the Promised Land. At Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin, Moses and Aaron sinned against the Lord at the waters of Meribah (Contention). There was ‘strife’ among the congregation who were rebelling against the Lord (20:10; 27:14). Moses and Aaron failed to believe God and they failed to obey God. At the time of this incident, God drew attention to their unbelief – ‘You did not believe in Me’ (20:12). Later on, in 27:14, God focuses our attention on their disobedience – ‘You rebelled against My Word.’ The leaders of God’s people – Moses and Aaron – were guilty of unbelief and disobedience. This emphasizes for us that there is never any room for resting on our laurels. As we read of the exclusion of Moses and Aaron from the Promised Land, we must hear and heed the challenge of God’s Word when He says to us, ‘Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?’ (Galatians 3:3). The way of blessing is not the way of the flesh. It is the way of the Spirit.
The words of Don Francisco’s song, ‘Holiness’ (from the album of the same name, 1984) bring out well the lessons God was teaching His people, Israel, while they were in the wilderness. He was teaching them about holiness. He was showing them the way of blessing.
“When God took His people to the promised land, He gave them their freedom and He gave a command. He said, west of the Jordan you can have all you see, but beware of their idols and be holy to me.
Holiness, holiness. It’s the only life that the Lord can bless. Holiness, holiness. It’s the Lord’s command, not the Lord’s request.
They heard the commandment but did not obey. They hardened their hearts and wandered away from the goodness of God and the blessings He gave to the traditions of men and the yoke of a slave.
Holiness, holiness. It’s the only life that the Lord can bless. Holiness, holiness. It’s the life apart from the world’s excess. For the people of God there remains a rest. Holiness, holiness.
Jesus is calling you. Come, take My hand. I’ll lead you away from the wilderness land to a place full of goodness as far as you can see, but remember who brought you and be holy to Me.
Holiness, holiness. It’s not your food or drink. It’s not the way you dress. Holiness, holiness. It’s to hear the Lord and to answer Yes. Holiness, holiness. It’s the only life that the Lord can bless. For the people of God there remains a rest. Holiness, holiness.”
The importance of following the way of the Spirit is highlighted for us in the description of the new leader, Joshua. He is described as “a man in whom is the Spirit” (27:18). As we read, in the Book of Joshua, of Joshua’s leadership, we may be tempted to think that it was primarily a military leadership. This would, however, be a mistaken impression. Joshua was a spiritual leader, a man empowered by the Spirit of God, a man who led the people forward in the ways of God.
The spiritual character of Israel’s military exploits in the land of Canaan is made clear in 33:52. At the heart of Israel’s warfare was this holy purpose of giving worship to the one true God: “you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places.”
Why were the inhabitants of the land to be driven out? Their whole life was bound up with idolatry. Why were the figured stones, molten images and high places to be destroyed? Worship was to be given to the Lord alone.
Joshua was a military leader because, first and foremost, he was a spiritual leader.
Numbers is a kind of “Old Testament in miniature”. It is a story of glorious victory - God leading His people into the promised Land. It is also a story of sad failure - God’s people preferring the old worldly way of life rather than the new life of the Spirit.
Here, we learn of the continuing conflict between the flesh and the Spirit – “the desires of the flesh are aginst the pirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17).
This is the conflict from which we are never free. To our dying day, we will face this conflict. If, however, we have begun to walk in the way of the Spirit, there will always be, within us, a longing for our promised future, our final deliverance from the world, the flesh and the devil.Numbers is incomplete. There is a looking forward to the Promised Land. The Old Testament is incomplete. There is a looking forward to the promised Saviour. Our earthly life is incomplete. There is a looking forward to our promised “eternal redemption”.
Looking Forward to the Promised Land
Beyond the wilderness, there was the Promised Land. Life would not be easy in the Promised Land. There were many battles to be fought.When we read of Israel’s warfare in the land of Canaan, there is both glorious victory and sad failure. God’s charge to Israel to drive out the heathen from Canaan was never completely obeyed. The contaminating influence of false religion was never entirely eradicated from the land of Canaan. This incomplete obedience hastened Israel’s religious apostacy and led, in time, to Israel being taken captive by the Babylonians. As we read on through the Old Testament, there is an increasing sense that God is leading us people on to something more wonderful than the Promised Land. Beyond the Promised Land, there is another promise. It is the promise of the Saviour and His “eternal redemption”.
Looking Forward to the Saviour
There is, in Numbers, a great deal of instruction regarding the sacrifices and feast of Israel. These sacrifices and feasts are full of prophetic significance, pointing forward to the Lord Jesus Christ for their fuller meaning. In the letter to the Hebrews, it is emphasized that our Lord Jesus Christ is both the Priest, who offers the sacrifice, and the Sacrifice which is offered.
In Hebrews, we learn that Jesus is the Great High Priest. He presents the Sacrifice to God His Father. The Sacrifice which He offers is the Sacrifice of Himself – “for all time a single sacrifice for sins” (10:12). As we study Hebrews, it becomes clear to us that we do not need to repeat the Old Testament sacrifices – “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (10:4).
The testimony of the letter to the Hebrews may be summed up in the words of 9:11-12 – “When Christ appeared as a High Priest … He entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption”.
Looking Forward to our “Eternal Redemption”
As we read about the “eternal redemption”, secured by the shedding of the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we may turn, in Numbers, the Balaam / Balak passages (chapters 22-24) for a verse of Scripture which encourages us to believe that God will not let us down. He is faithful. He will fulfil His promise to us: “God is not a man, that He should lie, or a son of man that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfil it?” (23:19).
In this important respect, God is very different from human beings. We make promises. Very often, we fail to keep them. God never breaks His promises. In Christ, He has provided an “eternal redemption”. He has promised that all who trust Christ will enjoy this “eternal redemption”. This is a great promise upon which can confidently take our stand. It is a promise given to us by the God who never fails to fulfil His promises.
We are “en route” to our “eternal redemption”. As we press on towards our heavenly destination, we require instruction on regarding the life of faith and obedience. Numbers gives us a great deal of detailed instruction concerning behaviour. We need not concern ourselves with all the details. We are not called to reproduce Old Testament Israel in the Church of today. We must, however, preserve the emphasis on holiness.
The New Testament – no less than the Old Testament – encourages us to “Strive … for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Whatever differences the may be between the Old and New Testaments, there is complete agreement here: God’s people are to be a holy people.
Why should we spend time studying this obscure Old Testament book?
The answer to this question may be summed up in one sentence: “these things were written down for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11).
What is the central message of Numbers for today’s Church?
Once again, a sentence from Paul gives us the answer to our question: “these things are warnings for us, not to desire evil as they did” (1 Corinthians 10:6).
“In the wilderness” – this is the Hebrew title of Numbers.
“In the wilderness” – this is the situation in which we are called to lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.
We are ‘en route’ to our eternal destiny, but we are not there yet. We have not arrived. We are still ‘in the wilderness’.
For us, no less than the ancient Israelites, the wilderness is a place of promise and a place of danger.
For them and for us, there is “good news” – “the promise of entering His rest” (Hebrews 4:1).
For them and for us, there is the danger of failing “to enter that rest”. For the older generation, always looking back wistfully to Egypt, the promise was not fulfilled because they did not believe: “the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers” (Hebrews 4:2). This is the danger that faces us -the danger of missing out on God’s blessing. The older generation of Israelites did not believe (Hebrews 4:2). They were disobedient (Hebrews 4:6). These things happened such a long time ago, yet they are filled with contemporary relevance.
There is never a “Today” when we do not need to hear these words: “Today, when you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 4:7). There will never be a “Today” when we can say, “I no longer need to hear the words, ‘Today, when you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts’ (Hebrews 4:7)”.
Every day is “the day of salvation”. Every day is the day in which God, in grace, mercy and love, is patiently looking for our response of faith – faith in Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord.
Having read about those who failed to reach the Promised Land, we must give careful attention to the Word of God when it says to us: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:11).
We are aware of the many dangers which face us. Let us pray that we will be even more aware of the presence of the God who will bring us safely home to our eternal destiny: “O Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end … O give me grace to follow my Master and my Friend”.