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Keynote: Rom. vii. 9-24.

THE book of Numbers gives us the wilderness wandering of a redeemed people, and answers to the experience of the Christian who knows that he is redeemed out of the world and brought nigh to God, but who fails to enter into possession of the fulness of his salvation. In this book we see the children of Israel brought to the borders of the promised land, and failing to go in “because of unbelief”; and we see them, on account of this failure, condemned to wander for forty years in the wilderness. The seventh chapter of Romans is the New Testament counterpart of this book. Paul gives us in that chapter the experience of a redeemed soul, who knows what it is to delight in the law of God after the inward man, but who finds another law in his members warring against the law of his mind, and bringing him into continual captivity. It is too common an experience to need any 76 description; for we all, I doubt not, know it for ourselves only too well, either in the past or the present. It is, in short, that experience in the church which has produced, and is best expressed by such hymns as the following:

“Look how we grovel here below,

Fond of the earthly toys;

Our souls, how heavily they go

To reach eternal Joys!

In vain we tune our formal songs,

In vain we strive to rise;

Hosannas languish on our tongues,

And our devotion dies.”

That Christians could ever be willing to sing such experiences as these, seems a strange phenomenon. One would think, if it were unfortunately true, that it would be buried with shame in the deepest recesses of the heart, or spoken of only with the greatest sorrow. It is as though wives should put into verse, and sing to one another, their want of love and devotedness to their husbands. Or as though the children of Israel should have sung instead of weeping, when they found themselves turned back to wander in the wilderness.

The wilderness wandering, however, does not fill up the whole book of Numbers. The first twelve chapters give us the details of God's provision for His people's need, as to service and warfare. And it is a provision so ample and complete, as to seem to leave no possible 77 room for failure to come. As we read also concerning the Christian in Phil. iv. 19, “My God shall supply all your need, according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” Neither they nor we can find any excuse for our failure in the insufficiency of His supplies.

In chapters i. and ii. God numbers His people, and arranges them around His dwelling-place, assigning to each one his rightful position, and calling them by their names; a blessed illustration of the Good Shepherd's individual care of His flock, who “calleth His own sheep by name and leadeth them out.” The numbering here was especially for warfare, “from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war;” and typifies the especial aspect of Christians, as engaged in spiritual conflicts with their enemies, the world, the flesh, and the devil. Only those who were able, were called into this warfare. The young, and weak and aged were to be spared; showing that only a vigorous Christian life can really fight the fight of faith. And all were to “declare their pedigrees,” i. 18, that it might be known beyond a shadow of doubt whether they really belonged to Israel. Souls who doubt whether they belong to God or not, can scarcely fight His battles, for their very doubts are a siding with the enemy against Him.

In chapters iii. and iv. we have the Levites set apart for service: “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and present them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister unto him. And they shall keep his charge, 78 and the charge of the whole congregation before the tabernacle of the congregation, to do the service of the tabernacle” (iii. 6, 7). We may consider the Levites as a type of the church in service, doing the Lord's work, and having in charge His truth. The priest was a type of a soul in communion, and the Levite of the same soul in service. The Levites waited on the priests, and performed their service only “at the appointment” (iv. 19) of the priests. It is the soul in communion that finds out what the soul in service ought to do: and service is valuable only as it waits on, or “ministers unto” communion. The Levites carried the tabernacle, and its furniture, and its vessels in all the journeyings of the children of Israel, and set it up in every new encampment: a striking type of the fulfillment of Christ's command to His disciples, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” The service of each Levite was marked out for him by the “commandment of the Lord,” as we read concerning the service of the church in I Cor. xii. 11, “But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will.”

In chapter v. we have provision made for the purity of the camp: “Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead: both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell,” v. 2, 3. God's presence requires perfect purity on the part of those 79 among whom He dwells. He takes knowledge of every wrong, even of that which may be hidden from those nearest us, and brings it to judgment. This is very blessed to the soul that really loves holiness and hates sin. Knowing the deceitfulness of our own hearts, and how easily grave and serious defects may be hidden from us, and knowing, as we do, the grievous and sometimes fatal results that flow from our secret and often scarcely recognized faults, we may well rejoice that we have to do with a God who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity without recognizing it, and who is a “discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

In chapter vi. we have given us God's mind respecting those whose hearts stir them up to a life of peculiar devotedness to the Lord, either for a particular work, or for an especial season: “ “When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the Lord,” vi. 2. Such a one may be called for a time to deny himself from things not evil in themselves, and to which it may be he can one day return, (compare ver. 3 with ver. 20). But if the Lord has thus called us into separation for an especial purpose, either of service or of training, let us beware lest “our separation be defiled” by any lack of obedience to the divine command, or any want of watchfulness against the divine forbiddings. This separateness and this self-denial will bring us to a place of joyful communion “when the days of our separation are fulfilled,” and Christ in all His manifold fulness will be 80 revealed to our souls, (see vi. 13-20). And the Lord can then pronounce over us without any hindrance His richest blessings, as He did upon Israel at the close of this chapter.

“The Lord bless thee and keep thee;

The Lord make His face shine upon thee,

and be gracious unto thee;

The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee,

and give thee peace!”

In chapter vii. we have the offerings of the princes of Israel. Willing offering is always the result of blessing. “Freely ye have received, freely give,” is always the Lord's way with us. These offerings are a type of the willing offerings of God's children now, who may be princes in giving, even though poor in this world's riches. And He notes it all; every bowl and every spoon, and even every cup of cold water given in the name of the Lord is written in His book of remembrance, and not one shall lose its reward.

Chapter viii. gives us further details as to the Levitical service and the cleansing necessary for it, teaching us in type the absolute necessity for purity of heart, as the basis for any effectual and acceptable service to God.

Chapter ix. gives us the provision for keeping the Passover in the wilderness, and for the guidance of the children of Israel in their journeys. The passover was the memorial of their redemption out of Egypt, and was to be kept by the people, even in the wilderness. A type, I think, of the continual remembrance on our 81 part of the fact that we have been redeemed, even though we may know ourselves to be wandering in wilderness places. Neither defilement nor distance was to hinder from the keeping of the passover: “Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If any man of you or your posterity shall be unclean by reason of a dead body, or be in a journey afar off, yet he shall keep the passover unto the Lord,” ix. 10. But it was to be kept in the second month, instead of the first, see ix. II, teaching that defilement hinders or delays assurance, although it does not deprive the soul of its right to it. A child may be naughty, but it will be still a child, and no parent would be pleased to have it begin to consider itself no longer a child.

The presence of the pillar of cloud and fire guiding and protecting the children of Israel in all their journeys, (ix. 15-23), seems to me a very beautiful type of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God's people, guiding them day by day in all the journey of life. “And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the children of Israel journeyed: and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents. At the commandment of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they pitched,” ix. 17, 18. There were no roads nor guide-posts in that “great and terrible wilderness,” and none of whom they could inquire their way. Yet they journeyed “without carefulness,” because the Lord led them at every step. They had 82 none of the care nor responsibility of the journey. They had no need to meet and consult as to the best paths to take, nor to send out scouts to choose their route. They had only to watch the pillar of fire and of cloud and follow its movements, and all was well. A beautiful picture of the believer's absolute dependence upon the blessed guidance of the Holy Spirit, and of what ought to be his complete subjection to it.

And now that all had been arranged in God's order, the journey began. “And it came to pass on the twentieth day of the second month, in the second year, that the cloud was taken up from off the tabernacle of the testimony. And the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai; and the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paran. And they departed from the mount of the Lord three days' journey: and the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them in the three days' journey, to search out a resting place for them” (x. 11, 12 and 33). It is thus that the Lord, when He putteth forth His own sheep goeth before them. And how little cause for fear or anxiety can there be in a journey so guided, by such a Leader.

Yet almost at once the evil heart of unbelief showed itself, and the people “complained” (xi. I); and, seduced by the mixed multitude who accompanied them, they began to look back longingly to Egypt “We remember,” they said, “the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic: but now our soul 83 is dried away: there is nothing at all besides this manna, before our eyes “ (xi. 5, 6) . The soul that begins by complaining, soon ends by something worse. It loses its relish for heavenly food, and looks back with longing to that which the world gives. And the end is sadly typified in the closing verses of our chapter, xi. 33, 34. “He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.” Ps. cvi. 15.

The spirit of criticism follows swift upon spiritual leanness, as we see in chapter xii.: “And Miriam and Aaron spake against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman he had married.” The soul filled with the love of Christ has lost the spirit of judging. The divine charity spread abroad in the heart “thinketh no evil.” But an inward want of union with Christ always leads the soul to climb up on the judgment seat, and to take upon itself the task of removing the mote out of its brother's eye, regardless of the beam in its own. God deals with all such, however, sooner or later, and sounds in the inmost ear the solemn question, “Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And in mercy He reproves and chastens until the sin is acknowledged and the soul restored, 10-15.

In chapter xiii. we enter upon one of the saddest epochs of the history of the children of Israel. They are here brought to the very borders of the land which the Lord had given them for an inheritance, and for the very purpose of possessing which He had brought them out of Egypt. In Ex. iii. 8 He had said, “I am come down 84 to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land unto “--what?--the wilderness? No; “unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” And now that they had reached the borders of this land, the word to them was, “Behold the Lord thy God hath set the land before thee: go up and possess it, as the Lord God of thy fathers hath said unto thee; fear not, neither be discouraged.” Deut. i. 21.

But the previous rebellion had weakened the heart of the people, and when they heard from their spies of “giants,” and “cities walled and very great,” they were afraid and refused to go up. “Whither should we go up?” they said, “our brethren have discouraged our heart, saying, The people is greater and taller than we; the cities are great and walled up to heaven: and more- over, we have seen the sons of the Anakims there,” Deut. i. 28. In vain Caleb and Joshua “stilled the people saying, Let us go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” The remaining ten spies persisted in declaring, “We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” And the children of Israel were finally so incensed at the faithful report of Caleb and Joshua that they “bade stone them with stones,” xiv. 10.

This whole scene is a picture, I think, of a stage of Christian experience, which is, alas! only too common. The soul, which has been translated out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God's dear Son, is 85 brought face to face with the wonderful promises and blessings of the gospel, and longs to go up and possess them. The glorious liberty and triumphs, for instance of the eighth chapter of Romans confront us, and we ask, “Is it not cur privilege to enter into these things now?” But we are met on every hand by “spies,” who tell us of the giants in our way, and of the difficulties that we shall not be able to overcome; and thus our brethren so “discourage our hearts” that we finally give up in despair, as Israel did, and turn back to wander in the wilderness of the seventh of Romans, afraid to take possession of the very land of promise which the Lord our God declares He has given us, and into which it was the very purpose of our redemption that we should be brought.

I know what it is to have been discouraged in the early part of my Christian course by the story of these “spies,” and to have become in turn a spy myself, bringing up a bad report of the land. When I was first converted I never dreamed of anything but of taking possession, of course, of all the rich and glorious things which I saw promised in the Bible to believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. I had never been used to hearing Christians talk much about their spiritual experience, and I supposed in my simplicity that to be in the kingdom of Heaven meant really to be in a kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. And when in the course of a few weeks the “giants” began to appear in my land, and I found myself surrounded 86 and overcome by a “people greater and taller” than I was, I at once concluded this must be because I had not learned the whole gospel, and that it only needed for me to be taught something more in order to get the victory.

I had found in the Lord Jesus a deliverer from the guilt of sin, but now I wanted to find in Him a deliverer from the power of sin, and I did not know how to set about it. I went therefore to a “spy” to find out. He was a beloved Christian teacher who had been many years in the way, and must know, I supposed, all about it. But never shall I forget my disappointment! After I had stated my case and told my need, saying that I knew it was because of my ignorance, and because I had not taken in the fulness of the gospel that I was in so sad a case, my friend said, “Oh, no! You are all right. You cannot expect such a deliverance as you are seeking. We all of us are more or less under the power of sin all our lives, and we must not expect the early joy of our conversion to last for ever. The seventh of Romans is the experience of the Christian throughout his whole life.” I thought my friend knew, and I received his report as final, and at once settled down to my condition as being inevitable, and therefore to be endured with the best grace I could; but my heart sank as I left the house, and, like the children of Israel, I could have “lifted up my voice and cried,” so great was my disappointment. And many a time in the years that followed would I recall with saddest longing the blessedness I had felt when first I knew the Lord.


But, so ignorant was I of God's ways, that I in turn became a spy, bringing a bad report of the land to the Christians who came to me for counsel, telling them it was indeed a good land and a large, but adding the fatal “nevertheless” of unbelief, that the people who dwelt in the land were too strong for them, and the cities were walled and very great. Many a one did I thus turn back, causing them to wander with me in the wilderness for many years.

I am sure I but relate the experience of others of my readers in thus giving my own. In prayer-meetings, in sermons, in private converse, and in books, this report of the spies is declared to us over and over; until at last if any faithful Caleb or Joshua, who have “wholly followed the Lord,” comes forward with the assertion that, “We are well able to overcome,” the church is ready, in a figurative sense, even to stone them with stones. And I think if we are, many of us, honest with ourselves, we shall be forced to confess that some of these stones have been at one time or another cast by our own hands. Let us thank God if we have learned better, and if now we also can say of the people of the land, “they are bread for us; their defence is departed from them, and the Lord is with us; fear them not.”

The New Testament tells us that the cause of this sad failure of the Israelites was unbelief. “So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief,” (see Heb. iii. 15-19, and iv. 1-10). It was not their own weakness 88 nor the strength of their enemies that hindered their entrance. They were, it is true, “grasshoppers,” and their enemies were “giants” and it was indeed manifest that they were not able to overcome. But the Lord was able. And He it was who was to fight for them and to bring them in. They had recognized this when they sang that triumphant song in Ex. xv., just after they had crossed the Red Sea: “The Lord is a man of war,” they sang, “the Lord is His Name.” “Thy right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power; thy right hand, O Lord, hath dashed in pieces the enemy.” “The people shall hear and be afraid: sorrow shall take hold upon the inhabitants of Palestina.” “Fear and dread shall fall upon them; by the greatness of thine arm they shall be as still as a stone; till thy people pass over, O Lord, till the people pass over, which thou hast purchased. Thou shalt bring them in and plant them in the mountain of thine inheritance, in the place, O Lord, which thou hast made for thee to dwell in.”

Their enemies were as great and they themselves: were as weak when this song was sung, as when the borders of the land were reached. But the people, fresh from the Red Sea victories, had no fear on account of this. The Lord was to do it all; and what mattered to the Lord, the giants' strength or the weakness of be children of Israel? It is nothing to Him to work with many or with few, and no giants or walled cities can successfully oppose Him. It was unbelief, therefore, and unbelief alone that prevented their going 89 in. It may have sounded like humility to themselves to talk thus of their own weakness, and the strength of their enemies, but it was really unbelief. See Ps. cvi. 24-27. And while to us also it may seem very humble to dwell on our own weakness, and the strength of sin, and to be thereby hindered from realizing the gospel's richest blessings, yet it is as really unbelief in our case as in theirs. For the Lord our God which goeth before us, He it is who is to fight for us, and is to bring us in, and plant us in the land of our inheritance, as actually as He was to do it for them. Without Him we can do nothing literally. With Him we can do all things, and depending on Him we are always “more than conquerors “ over every enemy. He hath blessed us, He declares, “with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ,” and it only remains for us by faith to go up and possess them. If we do not, it will not be because of our weakness or the strength of our enemies, but because of unbelief. It will be because we measure our enemies with ourselves, instead of measuring them with the Lord. We may be, and indeed are “grasshoppers” in their sight, but what are they in the sight of God? Truly by the greatness of His arm they shall all be as “still as a stone,” before the soul that dares to step out on His promises and trust all to Him.

The consequence of this failure on the part of the children of Israel was a forty years' wandering in the wilderness. See Num. xiv. 33, 34. The Lord did not forsake them because of it, but went with them in all 90 their journeys, and still protected and guided them with His presence. And they might perhaps have been tempted, because of this, to think they must after all be about right, or He would not favor them so. But His estimate of this wilderness wandering is to be found in this, that in speaking of it He called it “the time of provocation,” or “the provocation “ See Heb. iii. 8-15, Ps. xcv. 8, Ps. lxxviii. 40. The Lord does not forsake the soul that fails to enter into the possession of the fulness of His salvation. In all our wanderings He accompanies us, and we may have many precious seasons when He delivers us from our enemies, or supplies our needs. In fact in the sacrifice of the Red Heifer, in Num. xix., we see an especial provision made for the uncleannesses sure to be contracted in the wilderness journey; answering, I believe, to the declaration in I John ii. 1, where the apostle, after having told us that he has written these things unto us that we sin not, adds, “And if any man sin we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” It is not that He sanctions the sin by His forgiveness, any more than He sanctioned the wilderness journey by His presence. But, like a loving parent, if His children will wander, He must keep with them through it all.

Other rebellions followed this failure to go in and possess the land. They broke God's rest, chap. xv. 32-36. They rebelled against Moses and Aaron, chap. xvi., and sought to assume to themselves the place which could only be received as the gift of God. They complained 91 at having been brought into such an “evil place,” chap. xx., and “chode with Moses” because of it. And in chap. xxi. 4, 5 we read, “And the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake against God and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” And thus brought upon themselves the scourge of the fiery serpents, xxi. 6-9. And finally, in chap. xxv., “Israel joined himself unto Baal-peor: and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.” Until the Divine comment on it all is, “How oft did they provoke Him in the wilderness, and grieve Him in the desert,” Ps. lxxviii. 40.

Each sin was no doubt the occasion of fresh displays of grace, but no one surely would argue from this that because grace abounded therefore sin might also abound. Rather would we cry with Paul, “God forbid! How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?” I would refer my readers to the seventy-eighth Psalm for the Lord's thoughts about this whole wilderness wandering.

And yet at the close of it, when the children of Israel took up their final encampment in the “plains of Moab on this side Jordan by Jericho,” xxii. 1, we have those wonderful chapters concerning Balaam and Balak, xxii., xxiii., xxiv., where God's richest blessings are pronounced upon this very people, who had so often provoked and grieved Him; and where we even read these remarkable words, xxiii. 21: “He hath not beheld iniquity in 92 Jacob, neither hath He seen perverseness in Israel: Lord his God is with him, and the shout of a king is among them.” What can this mean but that He has so completely put all our sins behind His back, and cast them so utterly into the depths of the sea, that He remembers them no more forever?

From this time the wilderness wandering was over. The camp was not removed from the plains of Moab until in the book of Joshua they crossed the Jordan into the promised 'land. In the remaining chapters of Numbers we have given to us the final arrangements that had to be made before this could be done.

In chapter xxvi. God numbers the people afresh, as heirs ready to take possession of their inheritance.

In chapter xxvii. a new leader is appointed in the place of Moses to lead them out and bring them in, “that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep without a shepherd.”

In chapters xxviii. and xxix. we have details as to worship and sacrifices.

Chapter xxx. is concerning the vows of women, showing us God's provision for folly and weakness, that those who are not responsible (as women were not among them) may have their foolish plans set aside by Christ, the heavenly Bridegroom.

Chapter xxxi. gives us the story of a war which resulted from the sin of chap. xxv. The conflicts in the wilderness experience are not like the conflicts in the land of promise where actual spiritual ground is acquired 93 as the result. They are always the result of sin, and are fruitless in results. as far as the acquisition of territory is concerned, although no conflict can be without immediate fruit in present spoils from the enemy.

In chapter xxxi. we have the account of the children of Reuben and the children of Gad who took up their abode on the wilderness side of Jordan. They had a “very great multitude of cattle,” and behold, “the place was a place for cattle.” Therefore they said to Moses, “Bring us not over Jordan.” And many Christians are likewise tempted to take up their abode this side of Jordan; by the multitude of their cattle and because the place is a place for cattle. But such dwellers in the border-land are the first to fall a prey to the enemy, and are continually harassed by his attacks.

Chapter xxxiii. reviews the way by which they had come, and commands the utter destruction of all the enemies in the land of their inheritance.

Chapter xxxiv. marks the limits of the country they were to possess.

Chapter xxxv. appoints the portion of the Levites, and the cities of refuge; the last being wonderful types of Christ as the Refuge of sinners.

Chapter xxxvi. taken in connection with the first part of chap. xxvii. shows us the blessedness of a bold claim of faith, when regulated by the divine limitations. These daughters of Zelophehad would not forego the privileges which belonged. to them by inheritance, although to the eye of man they had no rightful claim. 94 But this boldness of faith must be limited by the commandments of the Lord. See xxxvi. 1-12.

The book closes with the children of Israel still encamped “in the plains of Moab, by Jordan near Jericho,” waiting for the rehearsing of the law which was to precede their final entrance into the promised land. This rehearsal we have given to us in Deuteronomy.

The practical lesson taught us in the story contained in this book of Numbers is summarized in Heb. iv. 1, 2: “Let us, therefore, fear. lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto us was the Gospel preached, as well as unto them; but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.” A wonderful “land of promise” is opened out before every believer, and we are commanded to go in and possess it. But except this “good news” is “mixed with faith” in those who hear it, it will be of no avail, and they will find themselves among the number “who could not enter in because of unbelief.” The great thing necessary therefore is that we should believe. But believe what, some may ask? Believe that the land is ours, that the Lord is able to bring us in and give us our inheritance there, and that not an enemy shall be able to stand before us all the days of our life. And then, believing this, we shall have the courage of faith to “apprehend that for which also we are apprehended of Christ Jesus,” and shall realize that we which have believed do, even now and here,” enter into rest.”

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