Chapter 1 The Testimony In The Wilderness

Take ye the sum of all the congregation (Numbers 1:2).

Every man…shall pitch by his own standard (Numbers 2:2).

This book has its name from the account it gives of the number of the children of Israel—the number being taken twice particularly. It contains a history of the affairs of God’s chosen people and their travels in the wilderness. In those ancient times the Lord God set up the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness and out from this God gave the several laws to Moses as recorded in the previous book of Leviticus. The camp of Israel was the Lord’s lightbearer in a darkened world. In a certain locality each tribe had its own special place as a lightbearer. The tribes were, in some senses, figures of New Testament local churches as we see in Revelation chapters two and three. These seven Asian churches are representative of all churches in every age.

The Numbered People

The nation was redeemed—physically so. They had been rescued by God’s own hand from the tyranny of Egypt. When redeemed a miracle of God supplied their daily needs. A moving pillar guided them in their movements onward to God’s inheritance. The law was given them to teach them how to live. They were fenced around by strict social customs and typical worship. Their contact with the world was broken. They were separated from all other nations. God was their defence. The land of promise lay before them. All this was a wondrous picture of the Lord’s spiritually freed people in Christ. The chains of Satan’s captivity are broken. The saved of the Lord are ransomed and freed and are now journeying as strangers through a wilderness world. Thus they daily praise God for their great Deliverer and the rich worth of His benefits.

Before God’s people move from Sinai’s base, however, God gives command that they are to be numbered. This was for their orderly journeying and encampment. The mixed multitude who went out with them were not to be numbered among them. It is a habit with men to count their possessions. A shepherd counts his sheep. In this numbering we read much of God’s love. We are counted because we are loved and prized. Our names are upon His heart. He esteems us amongst His choicest jewels.

But who are to be numbered? Not the young—the weak—the female. This is symbolic. Those only are enrolled who are strong for war. In spiritual application this teaches us that as believers we are to live a warrior life. We are to boldly follow our File-Leader and Captain and be ready to fight the world, the flesh, and the devil. It shows us something of the militant state we ought to have while in this wilderness world, and for which we are provided and prepared and accounted.

What a great army these children of Israel were! Only one family had entered Egypt. In spite of all efforts to annihilate them they had multiplied greatly. So it is with the redeemed in Christ. Who can number the redeemed of the Lord? They are saved from out of every nation—kindred— people —tongue. Their robes are made white in Jesu’s blood. Their hands wave palms of victory. By this numbering we remember how much we are in the thoughts of God.

The Camp

Even the wicked Balaam had to praise the camp of God’s people. Its beauty captivated his eye and the order of it charmed his mind: “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, and thy tabernacles. O Israel!” It was a sheer delight to look upon (Numbers 24:5, 6). Their tents were not ornate palaces—not reared as lasting monuments. They could be set up one day—the next taken down—the short-lived home of earthly sojourners. Thus it is with our bodies which are but clay. Should we then pamper or admire them? There is no humbler thing than a tent. And how soon our bodies crumble! Dust they are and to dust they return. These tents must fall. We cannot boast even of tomorrow. The flesh is but a mean abode yet our Lord took upon Him this frail flesh. In Christ incarnate—behind the hidden gray of this humanity—there was hidden the glories of Deity. He took it upon Him that He might suffer—bleed—die—bear the curse. He did His Godlike work in a lowly tent.

Look at the order of the camp. What perfect regularity! The arrangement of it is perfect. God has made His testimony an orderly testimony. There is no confusion where He dwells. Where He sits enthroned, His government prevails. Thus in the life of His assembly there is order—a place for worship in His sacred presence—a gathering for study of His holy Word—a tender care given to each family. All is a well-ordered scheme.

Note the position of the tents. “About the tabernacle of the congregation shall they pitch.” They all focused on one thing. As planets circle the sun, so these tents were centered round the tabernacle. And thus we learn that the Lord Jesus is the center—the heart—the life—the joy—of His gathered people. The eyes of all His saints are upon Him.

Then we see a standard or banner floating over each side of the camp. Beneath each banner three tribes rest. By its side they march. The banner over us, says the Song of Solomon, “is love.” Upon that banner we read the inmost love of our Lord’s heart. That standard is the pledge of safety. Mighty foes may assail. They must fail. The fight may be fierce but none of Christ’s can perish. Beneath that standard there is sweet repose. The Lord watches over the camp. He does so day and night. “I the Lord do keep it … lest any hurt it, I will keep it night and day” (Isaiah 27:3).

Jesus, still lead on,
Till our rest be won,
And although the way be cheerless,
We will follow calm and fearless;
Guide us by Thy hand
To our Fatherland.

If the way be drear
If the foe be near,
Let not faithless fears o’ertake us,
Let not love and hope forsake us,
For through many a foe,
To our home we go.

Jesus, still lead on,
Till our rest be won;
Heavenly Leader, still direct us,
Still support, console, protect us,
Till we safely stand
In our Fatherland.

-Nikolaus Von Zinzendorf