Numbers 1: 1-4; 2: 33; 3: 14-16; 8: 14-26; 26: 1-4, 62-65.
by Arthur George Doughty
WE live in a day when we are accustomed to numbering. The country numbers us and claims us for various services, but we have also been numbered by God, and for a very distinct purpose. I wish to call attention to this matter of numbering in days of old as typical of what the Lord is doing to-day. The book of Numbers has a present, living application to us.
The setting of the book of Numbers is very interesting. The spiritual history of the Israelites began with the passover. They started a new calendar at the passover in the land of Egypt. The beginning of each of us spiritually is when we know what it is to be under the shelter of the precious blood in the land of Egypt. I hope we are all conscious of that spiritual birthday. There are people who think conversion is the great end to be attained, but it is only the beginning. The people were sheltered under the blood in the land of Egypt, not to leave them there, but to bring them out. In the 40th chapter of Exodus, they had their first spiritual birthday in the wilderness. The beginning of the second year of the spiritual history of the Israelites was when the tabernacle was erected, meaning that God has a place on earth where He dwells among His people. The tabernacle of old, was a figure of God's dwelling-place on earth—the assembly—in wilderness surroundings, paralleled for us in the New Testament in the first epistle to the Corinthians. The tabernacle was built out of the contributions which the people brought. It was not made miraculously. It was constructed by the willing-hearted contributions of the people of God. So we begin to discover that God has in mind, dwelling on earth among His redeemed and saved people. The beginning of the second year finds the tabernacle constructed and finished, and God's presence in the cloud of glory in the tabernacle.
Then the book of Leviticus comes in, occupying a period of one month, and dealing with the great question of approach to God—the sacrifices, offerings, and priesthood, and all that relates to it. Surely it was a month of wonderful privilege, bringing before us what God had to say through Moses about His service. Then starts the book of Numbers— the first day of the second month of the second year. Now there is a new proposal—the people are going to be numbered. If we have been brought out of the land of Egypt, brought to know God and to appreciate that He wants a dwelling-place among His people, and have listened to those wonderful proposals in Leviticus, we surely want to have a responsible part in the testimony. God says, Count the young men of twenty years old and upward; they are needed to defend all this. The time should come when we arrive spiritually at the age of twenty. It is not a matter of natural years at all. I have seen young people of less than twenty in physical years who are twenty years old spiritually, and sad cases of older people who have never attained twenty spiritually. God looks for normal growth among His people. He does not intend that we should be carried all our lives, but that we should become men.
The time should come when we are twenty, when we are countable. We are accustomed to military service in this country. This is God's military service. God is looking for men and women of twenty years old and upward who are prepared to have a responsible part in the defense of His testimony on earth. I can well understand that it would be the ambition of every Israelitish boy to be numbered at twenty. Every one was expected, as appreciating the wonderful position in which he lived, as connected with God's camp and dwelling, to answer the challenge and take his part in the service of God. I suppose in this matter, Moses would typify the Lord Himself. The Lord is looking round in our midst to see if we have been counted. You may say, I have been breaking bread for years. But does the Lord count you? Are you prepared to share with the brethren the path of reproach in the testimony in the place where you live? Then we have Aaron, bringing in the priestly element. Moses suggests the Lord's authority as claiming the allegiance of every brother and sister, but the priest also comes into the matter. The Lord is very gracious. He does not expect more than you can give. The Lord understands every one of us perfectly, and He knows our make-up. With Moses and Aaron, we have the prince of each tribe. I think that is where the brethren come in. In our meetings, thank God, there are the princes. Let us thank God for our leaders locally and generally. We come under the scrutiny of our brethren—and rightly. Thus the saints scrutinize us with the royal outlook. The princes want to claim us for service in a military way, to be here for the defense of the precious interests of God. The Israelites were passing through a hostile wilderness, just as we are passing through a hostile scene. We all need to be in the ranks, to be numbered among those prepared to defend what belongs to God and Christ.
There is one great difference between Israel of old and the people of God at the present moment. In Israel, there was one tribe which had no part in this numbering—the tribe of Levi. They were omitted because they had a very much greater service. There is no separate class of Levites or priests to-day. We thankfully recognize those who devote their time to the Lord's service to-day; we sometimes refer to them as Levites. God wants to count everyone of us as Levites, brothers and sisters. The Levites were counted, not from twenty years old and upward, but from a month old and upward. God had in mind to have us from the beginning in the choicest service of all. God said to Pharaoh through Moses, "Let my son go that he may serve me." I am told that "serve" in that passage means service in a priestly and worshipful way. If you are a month old spiritually, you have been counted to have your part in the most precious service there is. You say, I am a most unlikely sort of person. So was Levi. His father says about him (Gen. 49) that he was cruel. But in Exodus, we read how he comes to light in a crisis, not moved by natural feelings, but by consideration for God. At a critical moment, the tribe of Levi came forward and stood by Moses, and God said, The priesthood shall be with them. We cannot excuse ourselves that we are unlikely people. If we have been born at all spiritually, we have been born into this family and have been counted to have our part in the service of God. These are not optional matters.
There is great variety in the service of God. We are often disappointed that we cannot do something that somebody else does. There were three great families of the Levites, and their functions embraced every phase of tabernacle service, from those who carried the ark—the most dignified and holy service of all—to those who carried the tent pegs. There is room for everybody. If you have not yet found your part in the service of the house of God, the Lord would encourage you to find it. There is much to be done. How we value those who bring before us the great thoughts of God and of Christ! Think of carrying the ark—the great glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Think of those who carried that in testimony and brought it before the saints! But, then, every part of the Levitical service is necessary, every tent-peg is necessary. If the tent-pegs are missing, the thing comes down. Your little contribution to the service of God is essential. There is room for every one of us, not only in a military way defending things, but in the service of the house of God here in wilderness surroundings. The Levites had to be set apart for this, though they were born to it. They had to pass through the process of consecration, of being set apart for the service. We are not to take up these matters in any casual way. We are to value intensely the holy privilege of having part in the service of God.
The Levites are counted a second time—at the age of thirty. At that age, the Levite was able to take up fully the service that belonged to him. We are told that they started to serve at twenty-five, and, to speak reverently, they served five years apprenticeship. I think it should be an exercise with us—Are we qualified to serve? We have been called for the service; we have been counted from a month; we are to grow up into it. This is a more mature matter than military service. The Levites were to be with the priests. If I desire to serve, how do I learn? By watching those who are more spiritual than I. I do not say that we should imitate them, though imitation in a right sense has its place, but we are to learn to take our part intelligently in the service of God by serving with others further on than ourselves. The Levites served five years with the priests before they became qualified at thirty to take up the service of God themselves. This again is no matter of human age. We do not have to wait till we are thirty before we take up the service of God. It is a matter of spiritual growth, and I am quite sure that for the service of God, a measure of maturity is needed—"not a novice," says the apostle. Let us look forward to the day when we can intelligently take our part in this great matter. We are reminded that the Lord Himself, when He began to be about thirty, commenced that wonderful service here for God. What a service that was! In the maturity of the Lord's manhood, He took up the service of God in a public way. But long before the age of thirty, He was here as a Man for the pleasure of God, His thoughts and feelings going upward to God all the time. After He was baptized, the voice from heaven said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I have found my delight." God had found delight in those years of waiting, before the Lord commenced to serve in a public way. There are many who, long before the age of thirty, have served effectively, but let us arrive at this age spiritually.
As we reach the age of twenty and arrive at the privilege of being here in a military way for God, we shall learn to desire to have our part in priestly and Levitical service. At twenty-five, we shall begin to serve with others, and at thirty, we shall know how to engage intelligently in the service of God, for the service of God needs intelligence and dignity. The service ceases at fifty. We cannot apply that in an arbitrary way. From one point of view, we never get beyond the prime of our life to God. Think of Moses himself at the age of one hundred and twenty! His eye was not dimmed, and he served to the end. How many have served to the end with effectiveness and power!
In chapter 26, we have a fresh numbering altogether. Much has happened between chapters 1 and 26—many long, bitter, and painful experiences. The people have learned bitter and painful lessons about themselves. The wilderness is a rough place to be in, and we learn of rebellion, murmuring, and discontent. It reached a climax in chapter 21, when they murmured against God and said, We are tired of the manna. What an exposure of what we are! How many of us have been in chapter 21—tired of the meetings, tired of the ministry, and wishing we were back in the world! They despised the manna—a type of Christ. That is what we are in the flesh, and it must be condemned. The flesh cannot go into the land. To deal with it, God said to Moses, Make a serpent of brass and put it on a pole. The serpent reminds us of where sin started. Whosoever looked at the serpent lived. We have in John 3: 14-16, the antitype of the brazen serpent in the wilderness. This is not a question of the forgiveness of my sins; it is a question of what I am—sin in the flesh. God has condemned sin in the Person of Christ, who was made sin. He not only bore our sins but was made sin. That is what the brazen serpent means. What I am, was condemned at the Cross, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin. As I look, I live, and I begin a new life in the power of the Spirit. What comes after the brazen serpent is the springing well. The people who go into the land are not the people in chapter one. God wants to count us a second time, not now to have our part in the wilderness but in the land. It is a great matter to learn that the man I am, can never go into the land; God will count me anew. That is, the identity is carried forward, but the person morally is changed.
The enemy tried to persuade God to condemn the people. Balaam and Barak thought they could curse the people and found they could not, for Balaam had to pronounce the blessing of God's people four times. The enemy made one more effort, as we see in chapter 25. He seduced some of the people, and judgment came in. It is very striking that in the next chapter, God says, Count the people. The wilderness is very testing. Some have fallen out of the ranks and God has brought in others. The people are going into the land in triumph. It is interesting that, while some tribes increased and others decreased in the wilderness, the Levites who go into the land, number a thousand more than at the beginning. That is, God is increasing in our hearts the appreciation of having part in His service. God wants to count us again, not only to have part in His service in the wilderness, but as a new kind of people who are moving forward in the power of the Spirit into the land, the sphere of His purpose for us in Christ, the other side of death.
Many of us are good wilderness brothers, but are we prepared for the land? Barzillai in David's day would be a good wilderness brother. He stood by David in the day of his rejection, but when David was going into the land, he was not prepared to go with him. Let us not miss the best. God has in mind that we should pass into the land. All that we are has been dealt with in the Cross of Christ—that is the brazen serpent. It is a new generation that is going in. God is counting those who are prepared to move in. Why should not we be amongst them? May God help us to have our part in these things!
Lancaster, September 23rd, 1944.
"Words of Grace and Comfort" 1945