God’s Word for You
Numbers 4:7-11 The Holy Place
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, June 9, 2021
7 Over the table for the Bread of the Presence they are to spread a blue cloth and put the dishes, the small bowls, the larger bowls, and the pitchers for the drink offering on it. The bread that is continually there is to remain on it. 8 Then they are to spread a scarlet cloth over these things, cover them with a covering made from the hides of sea cows, and insert its poles.
Why two cloths, blue and red, before the sea cow hide? The blue cloth was spread first, over the table, and this would be repeated with the other furnishings. That first cloth covered the precious furnishings of the Tabernacle in the same way that the curtain covered the Ark. All of the dishes and bowls and drink-offering pitchers were placed on the table after the blue cloth was spread. Some depictions of the table imagine tall spindles that held the bread in place. Does this passage and its meaning tell us that such spindles were unlikely, if not impossible? Once the dishes were arranged, the bread that was placed on the table before the move was ordered by God was replaced, sitting on top of the pitchers and bowls. While this might have been somewhat precarious, this was covered by another cloth (a red one) before finally being covered with the sea cow hides for transport.
The second cloth kept the sea-cow hide from touching the bread, and held the bread and dishes in place securely. Also, notice that the bread was placed on top of everything else. This was for one practical reason, but it also reminds us of the gospel.
First, practically speaking, the bread was to be available to the priests to eat. Placing it on top of the dishes did the least damage to the bread, which in turn remained on the table while it was being transported. This is also a picture of the gospel. No matter how we handle the word of God, we want the gospel to predominate in everything. The gospel needs to be on top. This is especially true when we speak in an everyday manner about the word of God, God’s will, and God’s compassion for his created and beloved people. It’s also true as we speak to children and to strangers about God’s will. And even when we talk to one another, friend to friend, husband to wife, parents to children, and so on, we want the gospel to be the thing we talk about the most. For we are constricted and bound by the sinful nature. We sin every day. Christians want the gospel to preside over what we say to one another so that the healing medicine of God’s grace penetrates our wounded consciences. We want to forgive those who sin against us, just as we ourselves are forgiven (Matthew 6:12). Of course, when someone has a hard heart and doesn’t think that they have sinned, they need the law, but the gospel must in most cases be the most important part of our conversations. What is more important than the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? So, like the bread of the tabernacle, it should rest on top of everything else.
9 They are to take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand used for light, its lamps, its snuffers, its fire pans, and all the jars of oil used to supply it. 10 They are to put the lampstand and all its accessories under a cover made from the hides of sea cows and put it on a carrying frame.
11 Over the golden altar they are to spread a blue cloth, cover it with a covering made from the hides of sea cows, and insert its poles.
Here we see the more typical handling of the holy things, if we can call such attention and reverence “typical.” The lampstand and its trimmers were wrapped in a blue cloth. Did this also serve to prevent scratches? In most of our churches, the Communion cups and dishes are wrapped in velvet or linen cloths when they are stored during the week, to keep them dust-free and scratch-free. After they were covered this way, they were covered as everything was with the weatherproof hide of sea cows. Then everything was laid on a “carrying frame.” This object is called a mot in Hebrew (with a long O), and it’s a word that often meant a thing that could shake, or that was “springy.” Psalm 10:6 uses this word when it says, “Nothing will shake me.” We suppose that such carrying frames, like wartime stretchers, were not rigid like a board but were hide stretched over wooden frames. This had a tendency to give a little, to bounce, and so it got this name. Nevertheless, everything would have been secured so that it would not fall off. No Levite would want to drop the golden lampstand.
The golden altar of verse 11 was the incense altar. It stood in front of the second curtain in the Holy Place, although the author of Hebrews describes it as standing (spiritually) behind that curtain in the Most Holy Place (Hebrews 9:4). Of course, the author of Hebrews knew perfectly well where the gold altar stood, but he was making an appropriate connection between the function of that altar and the Most Holy Place; they were intimately connected. It “belonged to” the inner sanctuary (1 Kings 6:21), but it was to stand “in front of the curtain that is before the Ark” (Exodus 30:6), not behind it. Luther, trying to be as careful as can be with the text, describes the incense burning in the Most Holy Place as burning in a stationary censer, not on the altar, “for those texts that have been adduced do not say that there was an altar or a censer in that (Most Holy) place, but rather that it was outside… And this is what I think until I am better informed” (LW 29:205).
The lampstand, the table of the showbread, and the golden incense altar, were the main features of the Holy Place. Wrapped carefully for travel in their blue cloths and the weatherproof hide of sea cows, they would be ready to carry to their next destination. Each and every time, they were taken down and wrapped up with care. They were carried with reverence. They were set up again with close attention to every detail. When the tabernacle was taken down in one place, it was set up again in exactly the same way, facing precisely the same direction, in the next place. An old priest could look at the sanctuary and then close his eyes in one location, be carried to the next, wait for the preparations to be complete, and open his eyes once again, and everything would look just the same apart from the features on the horizon. This is surely a reminder that the Lord our God does not change (Malachi 3:6). He is the same, “yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). More than this, and an important lesson for the Israelites in the desert, the Lord is the same God here as he is over there. God is not a different deity from place to place. His sanctuaries are not many, but one. He is the one true God. For us, this basic lesson is applied in the best way with the workings of the gospel: The payment that was made to God for our sins never has to be repeated. It is not owed to many gods, but only to the One. It does not need to be paid over and over again, but once for all (Hebrews 7:27). The sins Jesus paid for on the cross are paid in full, forever. All our sins are paid for by Jesus, one Savior on the one cross for the one human race. All of us: Forgiven.
Pastor Timothy Smith