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Bible Commentaries

F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Numbers 9

 

 

Verses 1-16

The instructions as to the Passover, which occupy the first half of chapter 9, were given to Moses at the beginning of the first month of the second year; that is, about a month before that which we have been considering, as is evident, if we compare the first verse of our chapter with the first verse of Numbers 1:1-54. The Passover commemorated the basis on which the redemption of the people rested. That came first, and the numbering of the people followed. Thus in type was the fact emphasized that God only numbers and counts as His, those who have been redeemed.

Verses Numbers 9:2-5 enforce obedience to all that God had commanded as to it. The time and manner of it had been laid down, and what had been laid down was to stand for all time. This principle of obedience is as true for us who are under grace as it was for Israel under law. One variation only was permitted, as we see in verses Numbers 9:6-8.

Moses knew that he had no authority to vary God's instructions, so he went to the Lord to hear what He had to say. The men in question had been defiled not by their sin but by attending duties in connection with the dead. They were permitted to eat the feast exactly a month later, but observing all the ordinances connected with it. Thus while there was no sanctioning of carelessness, there was provision made for unavoidable duties. The teaching of this we may well take to heart in relation to the Lord's Supper, which was instituted just as the prophetic import of the Passover was to be fulfilled. To miss that by reason of carelessness means spiritual loss; but not so if hindered by duties that are necessary and right.

Another thing comes to light in verse Numbers 9:14. Not only was this provision made for any who were hindered on the due date, but in His kindness God also thought of "the stranger." Such an one might also partake, if he observed all the ordinances. Thus, while under the law God was dealing only with Israel, He kept the door open for any strangers who might have their heart touched and drawn toward Himself. This was a thing that the average Jew was slow to admit, as we see in Peter's words, recorded in Acts 10:34, Acts 10:35. Now, in the Gospel, all distinctions have disappeared. There is "no difference," either in guilt or in the richness of the proffered grace, as the Epistle to the Romans declares.

The latter part of the chapter is occupied with the sign of the presence of God in their midst; namely the cloud that descended on the tabernacle on the day of its erection; which cloud had the appearance of fire by night. On the ground of redemption God vouchsafed His presence, and as there is with Him, "no variableness, neither shadow of turning" (James 1:17) we find here the words, "So it was alway." His presence was only forfeited as the result of the apostasy of the people, as we have to learn later on.

Moreover the cloud acted as a sign by which the goings or the stayings of the people were regulated. Such matters were not settled by the votes of the people or by the wisdom of Moses, but by the commandment of the Lord. The cloud might rest for only two days, or it might for a month or even a year. While it rested the people rested. When it moved the people moved. Thus their wilderness journey was regulated by the wisdom of God. Hence the extraordinary features that marked their journey, as noted by Moses at the beginning of Deuteronomy 8:1-20, and particularly verse Numbers 9:4.

Have we ever sighed for guidance in our pilgrim way, wishing we had some visible sign to direct? We have to remember what the Epistle to the Hebrews was written to enforce; namely, that the outward and visible things of Judaism were but shadows, which have given place to the realities that have reached us in Christ, and are known to faith. We have His Spirit and His word, and if we have that meekness, of which Psalms 25:9 speaks, we shall not lack the over-ruling guidance that we need.

The people needed not only guidance as to when to rest and when to journey; there were times when they needed to congregate together, or when an alarm had to be sounded. Hence the silver trumpets were to be made, and instructions for their use are given in the first ten verses of Numbers 10:1-36. Each individual Israelite had his place and responsibilities, yet they were a people who might be assembled together before God. In this sense Stephen spoke of them as the "church" or "assembly in the wilderness" (Acts 7:37). Further, there might be times when in the land an enemy drew near, and then blowing an alarm, they would be remembered by God.

The prophet Joel gives us an example of both. "Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in My holy mountain" (Joel 2:1). Here a powerful adversary was in view as the succeeding verses show. But again, "Blow the trumpet in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly" (Joel 2:15). Here it is a matter of approaching God, as the next verses show. We find similar thoughts in the New Testament. The alarm for conflict is alluded to in 1 Corinthians 14:8, so the trumpet must give no uncertain sound. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16, the trumpet of God is to sound to assemble the saints, whether dead or living, to meet the Lord at His coming again.

The instructions about the Passover were given early in the first month of the second year. The people were numbered on the first day of the second month. On the fourteenth day of that second month the men previously disqualified were allowed to eat the Passover. That completed, on the twentieth day the cloud was taken up, as verse Numbers 9:11 says, and the further journeyings of the people began. They left the wilderness of Sinai for the wilderness of Paran. Verses 14-28 give us the order of the tribes and their leaders.

Everything, we notice, was regulated; and the order was God's order. Judah led the first three tribes. After them came the bearers of the tabernacle. After the second group of three tribes came the bearers of the sanctuary — the ark and other holy vessels. Thus in the new spot the tabernacle was erected before the ark arrived. Ephraim led the remaining six tribes. These arrangements held good for all the journeyings of the children of Israel, according to verse 28.

In verses 29-32, the relations of the wife of Moses again appear. They were wilderness folk, well versed in its peculiar features, and therefore we can well understand the natural prudence of Moses in asking them to join in their journeys, and be unto them "instead of eyes." It sounded an attractive proposition to both sides. Israel would get very expert human guidance, and they would get a share in all God's goodness that was being showered upon Israel. But if God undertakes to guide His people, the most expert skill and understanding are unnecessary.

The Divine answer to this prudent suggestion of Moses, recorded in verse 33, is very striking. The ark of the Lord with the cloud of His presence left its accustomed place in the midst of the people and went in front to search out the exact resting place for them. Thus not only were their journeyings and their restings controlled, but the very spot for their encampment was indicated. Is God any less careful about the movements and the restings of His saints today? The church was "scattered abroad," in Acts 8:1, but in Acts 9:31 we read, "Then had the churches rest," and both things were under the control of the Lord.

The two verses that close the chapter show how fully Moses entered into the significance of this action on God's part. If God acted as the Vanguard of His people, every opposing force would be scattered and their safety assured. If the cloud rested when the camping place was reached, it meant that He returned to be the centre of the many thousands of Israel. That, and that alone, was the guarantee of their prosperity and blessing.

How great is the contrast as we commence reading Numbers 11:1-35. We move from the calm sense of the presence of God, ensuring victory and blessing, and descend to contemplate the people in their unbelief, which gave rise to bitter complaints. What happened at Taberah is recorded in the first three verses, though the particular matter as to which they complained is not mentioned. The people, however, were now definitely under the law that had been given, and had to face its judgment. If we refer back to Exodus 16:1-36; Exodus 17:1-16, where are recorded their murmurings and complaints before the law was given, we at once see a difference. Then no judgment followed, as was the case here. It furnishes us with an illustration of the statement that, "sin is not imputed when there is no law" (Romans 5:13); as also of that other statement of the Apostle, "when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died" (Romans 7:9).

But even worse was to follow, as we see from verse Numbers 9:4 onwards. The trouble began with the "mixed multitude," that was among them as we were told in Exodus 12:38. These were people who were not really of Israel though they had attached themselves to them; and amongst these the lusting for the delicacies of Egypt began, and from them it spread through the host.

To corrupt by introducing a mixture is a very common and very successful device of Satan. Directly God called a people out of Egypt to Himself, the "mixed multitude" appears. The same thing we see in principle in Matthew 13:1-58. When the good seed of the Word is sown, the enemy immediately sows tares amongst it. Again the Gospel is faithfully preached by Paul, but almost immediately there are "false brethren unawares brought in" (Galatians 2:4); and it is not otherwise today. A wholesome word of warning for us is — Beware of the "mixed multitude"!

Soon there was general lamentation throughout the host. The bondage of Egypt was forgotten; its luxuries were remembered? and as they thought of them the manna lost its attraction and was despised. The manna is now more particularly described to us. It was attractive in its colour and taste, but labour had to be expended in gathering it and preparing it for food, whereas Egypt's delicacies were more easily obtained and prepared besides being more varied. To the people the manna seemed monotonous.

The warning for us is very obvious. Christ is the true "bread from heaven," as John 6:1-71 so plainly declares, and when the first joy of our spiritual deliverance is passed, it is all too easy to lose our relish for Christ and His things and to hanker after the things of the world that appealed to us in our unconverted days. Then we become discontented, and tired of Christ, and complaining as to the absence of fascinating things that once we enjoyed. For Israel, being under law, judgment was the ultimate result. We are under grace, but nevertheless the Father's chastening in His holy government comes upon us.

Verses Numbers 9:10-15 ? reveal how deeply all this affected Moses. He was so overwhelmed by a sense of the burden of the people that he forgot that the burden really rested upon his God rather than himself. In verse Numbers 9:15 he asked to die rather than continue to bear the burden, thus doing just what Elijah did centuries after, when he flung himself beneath the juniper tree. Both suffered a collapse in their mind under the burden of the unbelieving people yet both had the honour of appearing in the glory of Christ on the mount of transfiguration. Such is the grace of our God!

Many a servant of God has had the burden of a similar experience, but in lesser measure. We discern it in very large measure in the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the Galatians, "My little children? of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you" (Galatians 4:19). We may be sure however that no servant of God can ever rightly say "I am not able to bear all this... alone, because it is too heavy for me." We must never leave God out of our reckoning.

Thus the unbelief and grievous sin of the people provoked some breakdown on the part of Moses, but the way in which the Lord condescended in His kindness to meet His fainting servant is very beautiful. Moses should no longer feel lonely, as though he had to bear the weight alone. He was granted human support in the shape of seventy elders of the people, though it was by reason of sharing the spirit that had been upon him that they were able to give the support. In result, they became prophets. Two who shared in the power were out of order as to their location, and this brought to light another striking feature that characterized Moses.

Joshua would have had the two men silenced because of the irregularity that marked their prophesying? but Moses forbad him. Envy might have found a place in the heart of Joshua but it had no place in the heart of Moses. The desire for pre-eminence, which is so rooted in the mind of the natural man, had no place with him. He displayed very clearly that meekness which is attributed to him in verse Numbers 9:3 of the next chapter. When 40 years old he was not very meek, as Exodus 2:12 shows Now after the 40 years' discipline from God in Midian, he is "very meek" though he had become "very great" (Exodus 11:3), in the eyes of the world.

Though so meek, Moses found it hard to accept the pronouncement of the Lord that He would feed the whole community on flesh, not for a day or a week only, but for a whole month; so verses Numbers 9:21-22 remind us of the attitude of the disciples when the Lord Jesus challenged them before the feeding of the five thousand. We are all so prone to measure an emergency by human possibilities and to forget what the Lord stated in verse Numbers 9:23. The Lord's hand is not waxed short and His word ever comes to pass, no matter how impossible the thing seems to us. The people had despised the Lord, as stated in verse Numbers 9:20, and even Moses had doubted Him. Yet what He had promised was speedily fulfilled in spite of its seeming improbability

The quail, is, we understand, a bird of migratory habits, not very strong in its flight and therefore its direction easily affected by wind. The Lord had divided the Red Sea by a strong east wind, and now again His wind blew, and moved not water but birds. In result quails came in such vast numbers as to surround the camp for miles on either side, so that the people could capture them without the slightest difficulty. The people were thus enabled to satisfy to the full their desire for flesh, but as they greedily satisfied their lust, plague broke out amongst them and many died. What they had desired as a blessing became to them a curse. And the damage was not only physical but spiritual also, for we read, referring to this episode, "He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul" (Psalms 106:15).

It looks as if the sad events recorded in Numbers 12:1-16 sprang out of what we have just considered — the faint-heartedness of Moses and the prophesying of the seventy elders. The very prominent position accorded to Moses by the Lord had awakened envy in the hearts of both his sister and his brother, and this weakening on his part called it forth. Moreover he had married a woman who was outside the circle of Israel, and this furnished a convenient excuse for their protest; and both of them, especially Miriam, were older than Moses.

Now the Lord had most definitely spoken by Moses. He had revealed His holy law, and Moses was the chosen servant through whom the revelation had been made, and was being made, and that in inspired words. They made the bold claim that Jehovah had equally spoken by them — that their utterances should be accepted as an inspired revelation from Him. A bold claim this! And one that was a great sin, meriting severe punishment, as the sequel shows.

During the church's history, sad to say, similar false claims have been made all too frequently; and are even made today by men who claim that what they say is to be received as a word inspired of God. When the false claim was made in our chapter, we find the significant remark, "And the Lord heard it." The man Moses being so pre-eminent in meekness, the Lord not only heard but promptly acted in such a way as to vindicate him, and make it very plain that he and he only was His accredited mouthpiece.

It is here that we have also the Divine testimony concerning Moses to the effect that he was, "faithful in all Mine house," which is quoted in Hebrews 3:1-19. It is very evident that if God selects a man to be His mouthpiece, in order to convey to others His message in inspired words, faithfulness is a prime necessity. The opposite of meekness is self-assertiveness, and if Moses had not excelled in meekness, his tendency would have been to intrude himself and his own thoughts into the words from God. If he had not been faithful, he might easily have been diverted, so as to misrepresent what God had really said.

Verses Numbers 9:6-7 indicate that Moses was more than a prophet. He was the apostle and mediator of the law covenant, as Galatians 3:19 shows. This being so, we can see how serious was this sin, in which Miriam was the leader. Aaron followed her, but he was evidently a man too easily influenced by others, as the incident of the golden calf showed. Hence the displeasure of God was manifested against Miriam only, and by an instantaneous act of God she was smitten with leprosy. Aaron confessed their sin and acted as intercessor, for also the cloud had left the tabernacle, which was the sign for the moving of the camp.

We saw in Leviticus 13:1-59 the instructions for the detection of leprosy and its cleansing. It is a remarkable fact that the first case in which Aaron had to act was that of his own sister and in regard to a sin in which he himself had been implicated. Miriam was the chief sufferer, but everybody was affected in some degree. Moses, who had been wronged, had to intercede. Aaron had to act. The people were held up in their journey for seven days. The whole episode may remind us of what is stated in 1 Corinthians 12:26, only that which binds saints together today as one body is far more real and intimate than anything that constituted Israel one nation in the sight of God. And further, if Moses was not to be challenged, how much more are we to regard the Head of the church, the Lord Jesus, as supreme and unchallengeable.

 


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Bibliography Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Numbers 9:4". "F. B. Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/fbh/numbers-9.html. 1947.

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