God’s Word for You
Numbers 1:47-54 Death near the Tabernacle
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, May 24, 2021
The Levites Exempted
47 But the Levites were not registered along with the others on the basis of their fathers’ tribe, 48 for the Lord had said to Moses, 49 “You are not to register the tribe of Levi, neither will you take a census of them along with the other Israelites. 50 Instead, appoint the Levites over the Dwelling of the Testimony and over all its furnishings and over everything that belongs to it. They are to carry the Dwelling and all its furnishings. They are to take care of it, and they are to camp around it. 51 Whenever the Dwelling is to move, the Levites will take it down, and whenever the Dwelling is to stop for a new camp, the Levites will set it up. Any unauthorized person who comes near it must be put to death. 52 The Israelites will set up camp, everyone in his own camp and under his own standard, according to their military divisions. 53 But the Levites will camp around the Dwelling of the Testimony so that wrath will not fall on the Israelite community. In this way the Levites will perform the duties for the Dwelling of the Testimony.”
Notice that the Evangelical Heritage Version, the translation we are using for this meditation on Numbers, consistently calls the tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, “the Dwelling,” or “the Dwelling of the Testimony.”
The whole tribe of Levi was exempted from military service because they had another service to perform for the Lord. They were responsible for the care of the furnishings of the Lord’s tent, for transporting it, taking it down and setting it up again. One of the most fascinating is the handling of the Ark of the Covenant when the tent was being set up and being taken down again, and the curtain that was hung in front of it (Numbers 4:5-6), which has echoes of the story of Noah’s drunkenness (Genesis 9:23). But there is one more item, the most important one for us to notice, which is in verse 51: “Any unauthorized person who comes near it (the tent) must be put to death.” Everything else in this passage is interesting in some way to us, but that one sentence should shout out to us: Pay attention to this most of all!
The Lord’s Dwelling or Tabernacle was a symbol for God’s people that the Lord was with them at the very center of their lives. But we cannot approach God in our sinfulness. Our sins must be atoned for; forgiven. This is only possible through Christ, and the blood offerings at the east entrance of the Dwelling pointed ahead to Christ. Therefore anyone who tried to come near to God’s tent apart from the sacrifices would die. Why was this so severe? For these reasons:
1, God wanted his people Israel to be ruled only by the Word he gave them. “This is the one I esteem,” says the Lord. “He who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2).
2, God bound Israel to one place of worship and one set of ceremonies so that the people would be bound by his will and not by personal preference (compare this with the peculiar American idea that individuals should ‘join a church’ that suits their needs rather than conforming to God’s will). “Be careful not to sacrifice your burnt offering anywhere you please. Offer them only at the place the LORD will choose in one of your tribes, and there observe everything I command you” (Deuteronomy 12:13-14).
3, God wanted to preserve his ministry in a particular place so that it would remain constant and true to his word and not be changed by inattention, fad, or forgetfulness. “Watch your life and your doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
4, This was so that the clergy (priests and Levites) would be admonished to maintain the unity of true doctrine and fellowship and not depart from the true God and his Word and the worship commanded by him. “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:10).
5, God’s will was that this one true church, his Dwelling or Tabernacle, the temple of God, would light the way of the true High Priest, Jesus Christ. This was so that we might take hold of the hope offered to us. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf. He has become our high priest forever” (Hebrews 6:19-20).
54 So the Israelites did everything that the Lord commanded Moses, exactly as he commanded.
This is one of the most important verses in Numbers. It occurs several times in Exodus during their preparations (Exodus 38:22, 39:32, 40:16; see also Leviticus 8:36) but here in Numbers it occurs only twice, here and in Numbers 9:5. This is a hint for us about the rebellion that was on its way that would lead to forty years wandering in this desert.
By camping around the Dwelling of the Lord, the three tribes of Levites set up a barrier the size of a whole community between the Twelve Tribes and the Holy Place. This was a physical reminder that God is unapproachable for sinful man. But our sins are covered by the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, and so the animal sacrifices commanded to ancient Israel were an arrow that directed their attention to the offspring of Eve (Genesis 3:15), the descendant of Abraham (Genesis 22:18), the promised King from David’s line: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13).
By the grace of God, Israel “did everything that the Lord commanded, exactly as he commanded.” This obedient state would not last long. But it is something we strive for every day. The difference is that our obedience is done out of thanks, not to earn anything. So when we strive, agonize over our position, and do whatever is God’s will, he blesses us. When we fall short of his will, he fills in the gaps and forgives us. And when one of us falls completely away from him, he leaves the ninety-nine sheep to search for us, for me (Luke 15:4). And when he finds us and leads us to repent and to trust in Christ, all heaven rejoices. This is the true nature of our relationship with our living, loving God. “He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:3).
Pastor Timothy Smith