Now that each tribe of Israel had been numbered in the census, God established a particular arrangement for the layout of their camp. The tribes were to encamp around the Tabernacle, which was a token of God’s gracious presence with them. The innermost part of the camp was occupied by the Tabernacle and its courtyard, with its doorway facing the east. Around this inner section was a space occupied by the ministers of the Tabernacle. Moses and the priests – Aaron and his sons – set up their tents on the east side of this area surrounding the Tabernacle, near the entrance to the courtyard. The other three sides were occupied by the three family groups within the tribe of Levi – the Kohathites on the south side, the Gershonites on the west side, and the Merarites on the north side. Beyond this space, on each side, was the camp of the Israelites themselves. Each side of this area was occupied by three of the twelve tribes – forming a “squadron” that was called by the name of the leading tribe in that group, which carried a specific standard or banner for their group.
Not only were these four squadrons directed as to the arrangement of their camp, but they were also given specific marching directions as well. Judah and his division would lead the way, after which would come Reuben and his division. Then the sanctuary would be moved, along with the Levites in the order of their camping. Ephraim and his division would follow after the sanctuary, and Dan and his division would bring up the rear.
It is worth pausing to reflect upon why the tribe of Judah was in the first post of honor, encamped towards the rising sun. And in their marches, his tribe led the way. This was not only because it was the most numerous tribe, but chiefly because it was from that tribe that Christ was to come – the Lion of the tribe of Judah! And He was to descend from the very same man who, at this time, was appointed as the chief captain of that tribe; for Nahshon is reckoned among the ancestors of Christ (Matthew 1:4). Therefore, when he went before the whole nation of Israel, it was a picture of Christ Himself going before them as their leader.
God Himself appointed the tribes to their places in the camp, to prevent strife and envy among them. He is the Fountain and Judge of honor; and to His appointment, all must comply. All the Israelites who belonged to the same tribe were to camp together, under the standard or banner of that tribe. It is the will of God that mutual love, affection, conversation and communion should be kept up among close relatives. How blessed it is when the ties of family are made even stronger by the bonds of Christian communion!
As we have already observed, the tribes were to pitch camp around the Tabernacle, which was to be in the midst of them – just as the tent of a general is in the center of an army. The reason for this was so that the Tabernacle might be a comfort and joy to all the people, since it was a token of God’s gracious presence with them. “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved” (Ps. 46:5). The whole camp had reason to be brave in heart, when they had God in the heart of them! To have bread from heaven every day, the fiery and cloudy pillar from heaven, and other tokens of the Lord’s favor in the midst of their camp – these things were abundantly sufficient to answer them when they asked the unbelieving question, “Is the Lord among us, or not?” How happy they ought to have been! It is probable that the doors of all their tents were made to look towards the Tabernacle from all sides, for every true believer should have his eyes always turned towards the Lord.
But even though the people were to camp around the Tabernacle, there was still to be a space between them and it. However, in Revelation 4:4, we read of the Lord’s heavenly throne surrounded by 24 elders – representatives of all His people – clothed in white raiment. They are very near to His throne, and the banner over them is Love. Unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, we are not commanded to camp afar off from the Lord; in fact, we are invited to draw near to God’s presence, and to come boldly! The saints of the Most High are said to be round about Him (Psalm 76:11). God, by His grace, keeps us close to Him!
Lord Jesus, we pray that You would give us power, in Your strength, to fight under Your banner against sin and all the enemies of our salvation. We thank You that victory is assured to us since You go before us through all the warfare! Amen.
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