Here we have a second census that was taken of the families of the tribes of Israel, about 38 years after the census that was taken at the foot of Mount Sinai (chapter 1). The total was nearly the same as in that first census, although some individual tribes had grown or decreased – significantly, in some cases (see the comparisons in the chart on the next page). And with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, none of the generation which had come out of Egypt were still alive (verse 64); for they had all been swept away, either by natural causes or by the various plagues that were sent among them during their wilderness wanderings.
The main objective of this second census was in view of the approaching allotment of the Promised Land which Israel was so soon to possess. This census was not taken as it was before in Numbers 1, according to the number of individuals in each tribe; rather, it was taken according to “families” – mainly corresponding with the names of the grandsons and great-grandsons of Jacob, enumerated in Genesis 46. In reference to the future division of the land of Canaan, it was arranged that the extent of the inheritance which would be allotted to each tribe would correspond to its numbers (verses 52-54). But the exact locality assigned to each tribe was to be determined “by lot” (verses 55, 56), so that each tribe might know that it had received its possession directly from the Lord Himself. The God of Israel reserves it to Himself to appoint the bounds of our habitation (Acts 17:26).
Levi was God’s tribe – a tribe that was to have no inheritance with the rest of the people when they entered into the land of Canaan. And therefore, it was numbered by itself, and not with the rest – just as it had been numbered in the census at Mount Sinai. It seems that the Levites did not come under the sentence which was passed upon the rest of the people of Israel, that none of them should enter Canaan except Caleb and Joshua; for among the Levites, Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Ithamar – and perhaps others – seem to have been above age 20. For example, according to verses 16 and 28 of chapter 4, Eleazar and Ithamar were already serving as priests and were given specific priestly responsibilities before the Lord pronounced that sentence upon the unbelieving people – and Eleazar and Ithamar did enter Canaan. And yet the tribe of Levi, in its second numbering, had only increased 1,000; it was still one of the smallest tribes.
It seems that the great intention of the numbering of Israel was with a view of impressing the unalterable decrees of God upon the minds of the people. The execution of the sentence that was passed upon the murmurers in chapter 14:29 is observable here in verses 63-65. The Lord had sworn (chapter 14: 21-24) that of all those people who had seen His glory and His miracles in Egypt and in the wilderness, none of them would see the Land of Promise because of their murmuring. And now, by the numbering of the people, the vacancies found by death provided proof of the Divine veracity. There was not one man numbered here in the plains of Moab who was numbered back at Mount Sinai, except for Caleb and Joshua. Herein the righteousness and faithfulness of God to His Word were seen. In addition, the Lord had promised Caleb and Joshua that they would live to see the Promised Land; and this promise was also fulfilled to them, giving yet another testimony to the truth of everything He says. Thousands fell on their right hand, and ten thousands fell on their left; but these two men were preserved by the Lord their God! (Ps. 91:7)
In the contemplation of the events recorded in this chapter, we feel our hearts constrained to cry out, “Lord! what is man?” As we here review the dreadful effects of death during these 40 years alone, we cannot even begin to imagine what destruction has been made by death for 6,000 years now, since sin first entered into the world, and death by sin. But let us turn from the view of the desolations made by death, and behold Jesus in all the glories of His redeeming character; for by His death, He overcome death and triumphed over the grave!
Precious Lord Jesus! You are the Rock of ages! On You, may we be built as on a sure dwelling-place! In Your Book of Life, may our souls be numbered! And when all the wilderness-trials of the wilderness-journey – and even the wilderness itself – shall be destroyed, may an entrance into the Canaan of Your everlasting and unchanging love be our portion among the numbered tribes of God! Amen.
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