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Numbers Chapter Four                            


Numbers 4

Chapter Contents

The Levites' service. (1-3) The duties of the Kohathites. (4-20) The duties of the Gershonites and Merarites. (21-33) The numbers of the serviceable Levites. (34-49)

Commentary on Numbers 4:1-3

The middle-aged men of the tribe of Levi, all from thirty years old to fifty, were to be employed in the service of the tabernacle. The service of God requires the best of our strength, and the prime portion of our time, which cannot be better spent than to the honour of Him who is the First and Best. And the service of God should be done when we are most lively and active. Those do not consider this who put off repentance to old age, and so leave the best work to be done in the worst time.

Commentary on Numbers 4:4-20

The Kohathites were to carry the holy things of the tabernacle. All the holy things were to be covered; not only for security and respect, but to keep them from being seen. This not only marked the reverence due to holy things, but the mystery of the things signified by those types, and the darkness of the dispensation. But now, through Christ, the case is altered, and we are encouraged to come boldly to the throne of grace.

Commentary on Numbers 4:21-33

We have here the charge of the other two families of the Levites, which, though not so honourable as the first, yet was necessary, and to be done regularly. All the things were delivered them by name. It intimates the care God takes of his church and every member of it. The death of the saints is represented as the taking down of the tabernacle, 2 Corinthians 5:1, and the putting it off, 2 Peter 1:14. All shall be raised up in the great day, when these vile bodies shall be made like the glorious body of Jesus Christ, and so shall be for ever with the Lord.

Commentary on Numbers 4:34-49

God so ordered it, that though the Merarites were the fewest in number, yet they should have most able men among them; for whatever service God calls men to, he will furnish them for it, give strength in proportion to the work, and grace sufficient. The least of the tribes had many more able men than the Levites: those who engage in the service of this world, are many more than those devoted to the service of God. May our souls be wholly devoted to his service.

── Matthew HenryConcise Commentary on Numbers


Numbers 4

Verse 3

[3] From thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old, all that enter into the host, to do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation.

From thirty — This age was prescribed, as the age of full strength of body, and therefore most proper for their laborious work of carrying the parts and vessels of the tabernacle, and of maturity of judgment, which is necessary for the right management of holy services. Whence even John and Christ entered not upon their ministry till that age. Indeed their first entrance upon their work was at their 25th year, when they began as learners, and acted under the inspection and direction of their brethren; but in their 30th year they were compleatly admitted to a full discharge of their whole office. But David, being a prophet, and particularly directed by God in the affairs of the temple, made a change in this matter, because the magnificence of the temple, and the great multitude of sacred utensils and sacrifices, required a greater number of attendants than formerly was necessary.

Until fifty — When they were exempted from the toilsome work of carrying burdens, but not discharged from the honourable and easy work done within the tabernacle, Numbers 8:26.

All that enter — That is, that do and may enter, having no defect, nor other impediment.

Verse 5

[5] And when the camp setteth forward, Aaron shall come, and his sons, and they shall take down the covering vail, and cover the ark of testimony with it:

They shall take down — For upon this necessary occasion the inferior priests are allowed to come into the holy of holies, which otherwise was peculiar to the high-priest.

The covering veil — The second veil, wherewith the ark was covered while the tabernacle stood, Exodus 40:3.

Cover the ark — Because the Levites, who were to carry the ark, might neither see, nor immediately touch it.

Verse 6

[6] And shall put thereon the covering of badgers' skins, and shall spread over it a cloth wholly of blue, and shall put in the staves thereof.

Badgers-skins — Whereby the ark was secured from the injuries of the weather.

Verse 7

[7] And upon the table of shewbread they shall spread a cloth of blue, and put thereon the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and covers to cover withal: and the continual bread shall be thereon:

The dishes — Upon which the shew-bread was put.

Continual bread — So called because it was continually to be there, even in the wilderness; where though they had only manna for themselves, yet they reserved corn for the weekly making of these loaves, which they might with no great difficulty procure from some of the people bordering upon the wilderness.

Verse 11

[11] And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue, and cover it with a covering of badgers' skins, and shall put to the staves thereof:

The golden altar — All covered with plates of gold.

Verse 12

[12] And they shall take all the instruments of ministry, wherewith they minister in the sanctuary, and put them in a cloth of blue, and cover them with a covering of badgers' skins, and shall put them on a bar:

The instruments of ministry — The sacred garments used by the priests in their holy ministrations.

Cover them — All these coverings were designed, 1. For safety, that these holy things might not be filled by rain, or tarnished by the sun. 2. For decency, most of them had a cloth of blue, or purple, or scarlet over them; the ark, a cloth wholly of blue, perhaps an emblem of the azure skies, which are spread between us and the Majesty on high; 3. For concealment. It was a fit sign of the darkness of that dispensation. The holy things were then covered. But Christ hath now destroyed the face of the covering.

Verse 13

[13] And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon:

The altar — Hence we may conclude, that they did offer sacrifices at other times, though not so constantly and diligently, as they did in Canaan. Moreover the taking away of the ashes only doth sufficiently imply that the fire was preserved, which as it came down from heaven, Leviticus 9:24. So it was by God's command to be continually fed, and kept burning, and therefore doubtless was put into some vessel, which might be either fastened to the altar and put within this covering, or carried by some person appointed thereunto.

Verse 15

[15] And when Aaron and his sons have made an end of covering the sanctuary, and all the vessels of the sanctuary, as the camp is to set forward; after that, the sons of Kohath shall come to bear it: but they shall not touch any holy thing, lest they die. These things are the burden of the sons of Kohath in the tabernacle of the congregation.

Bear it — Upon their shoulders. Afterward the priests themselves, being multiplied, carried these things, though the Levites also were not excluded.

They shall not touch — Before they are covered.

Verse 16

[16] And to the office of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest pertaineth the oil for the light, and the sweet incense, and the daily meat offering, and the anointing oil, and the oversight of all the tabernacle, and of all that therein is, in the sanctuary, and in the vessels thereof.

Eleazar — He himself is to carry these things, and not to commit them to the sons of Kohath.

The oversight — The care that all the things above mentioned be carried by the persons and in the manner expressed.

Verse 18

[18] Cut ye not off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites:

Cut not off — Do not by your neglect provoke God to cut them off for touching the holy things.

Verse 19

[19] But thus do unto them, that they may live, and not die, when they approach unto the most holy things: Aaron and his sons shall go in, and appoint them every one to his service and to his burden:

To his service — To that which is peculiarly allotted to him, the services, and burdens being equally distributed among them.

Verse 25

[25] And they shall bear the curtains of the tabernacle, and the tabernacle of the congregation, his covering, and the covering of the badgers' skins that is above upon it, and the hanging for the door of the tabernacle of the congregation,

The curtains — The curtains or covering of goats-hair.

The tabernacle — The ten curtains which covered the boards of the tabernacle; for the boards themselves were carried by the Merarites.

His covering — The covering of rams-skins which was put next over those ten curtains.

Verse 26

[26] And the hangings of the court, and the hanging for the door of the gate of the court, which is by the tabernacle and by the altar round about, and their cords, and all the instruments of their service, and all that is made for them: so shall they serve.

Which is round about — Which court compassed both the tabernacle and the altar.

Verse 28

[28] This is the service of the families of the sons of Gershon in the tabernacle of the congregation: and their charge shall be under the hand of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.

Under the hand — Under his conduct and direction.

Verse 31

[31] And this is the charge of their burden, according to all their service in the tabernacle of the congregation; the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and sockets thereof,

The sockets — Which were as the feet upon which the pillars stood.

Verse 32

[32] And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords, with all their instruments, and with all their service: and by name ye shall reckon the instruments of the charge of their burden.

Ye shall reckon — Every part and parcel shall be put in an inventory; which is required here rather than in the fore-going particulars; because these were much more numerous than the former; because being meaner things, they might otherwise have been neglected; and also to teach us, that God esteems nothing small in his service, and that he expects his will should be observed in the minutest circumstances. The death of the saints is represented us the taking down of the tabernacle. The immortal soul, like the most holy things, is first covered and taken away, carried by angels unseen, and care is taken also of the body, the skin and flesh, which are as the curtains, the bones and sinews, which are as the bars and pillars. None of these shall be lost. Commandment is given concerning the bones, a covenant made with the dust. They are in safe custody, and shall be produced in the great day, when this tabernacle shall be set up again, and these vile bodies made like the glorious body of Jesus Christ.

Verse 44

[44] Even those that were numbered of them after their families, were three thousand and two hundred.

Three thousand — Here appears the wisdom of Divine Providence, that whereas in the Kohathites and Gershonites, whose burdens were fewer and easier, there were but about a third part of them fit for service; the Merarites, whose burdens were more and heavier, had above half of them fit for this work.

── John WesleyExplanatory Notes on Numbers


04 Chapter 4


Verse 16

Numbers 4:16

The office of Eleazar.

The Eleazar priesthood:

There are few chapters which will so amply repay patient study as this. It might be styled the directory for the pilgrim priest, and therefore it is of great importance to us who wish to retain our priestly purity in the midst of the wilderness of this earthly life. The first verse tells us that it is addressed to Moses the lawgiver, and to Aaron the priest. We therefore at once expect to find here a linking of duties and privileges. If you want to know what was the great duty of the pilgrim priest, it was to carry the tabernacle throughout the wilderness, so that wherever the children of Israel pitched they might have a meeting-place where they might commune with God. And so this great work in which we are engaged may be summed up in these words, To carry Christ with us throughout this wilderness; and as the Levite’s motto might be, To me to live is the tabernacle: so to me to live is Christ, to carry Christ where’er I go. Some of us may be entrusted with what the world considers the more important service--with the holy vessels; others may have the heavier burden, or the little vexatious duties, but they are all for this great purpose, that the children of Israel may constantly hold communion with their God. Nay, mark you, more: not only does the great High Priest appoint each of us to service and burdens--both passive burdens and active service--but in the case of Merari there was to be a special inventory of everything entrusted to their care, so that they might not consider for one single moment that their part of the work was of less importance. The 16th verse brings before us not so much the responsibility as the privilege. To the office of Eleazar the priest pertain these four things--the oil for the light, the sweet incense, the daily meat-offering, and the anointing oil. As Christian men and women, are they not, spiritually speaking, just the four things you need now in your daily life?

1. The first is this: “To the office of Eleazar the priest pertaineth oil for light.” We recognise that God has made us the lights of the world. He bids us shine forth to the glory of God. He has given to us that high dignity. But, alas! too often our lights are going out; they do not shine as brightly as they ought. It seems as though we were hiding our light under the bushel of business or the bed of sloth, instead of putting it on a candlestick that it might give light to others. Call to your Eleazar Priest; ask Him to give of His oil; ask Him to take away sin, and to give you the oil of His Holy Spirit, for it is to the office of Eleazar the priest that pertaineth the oil for the light.

2. The second thing pertaining to his office was the sweet incense. You remember the use of the sweet incense. Whilst the children of Israel were praying in the outer court, the priest went into the holy place, and took with him the incense, laid it upon the altar, and, as the prayers ascended from the people outside, the incense ascended from the priest inside. Now, have you not ofttimes felt the necessity of that sweet incense? O Thou Eleazar Priest, do Thou purify my prayers with Thine own sweet incense, so that God may listen to my cry, and forgive the evil of my prayer: purge out the unclean selfishness of my prayer, that it may ascend up to my Father in heaven. Thank God, to His office it pertains to provide that sweet incense. You have not to provide the incense.

3. Thirdly, to his office pertaineth the daily meat-offering. You remember what that was. Every morning the children of Israel were obliged to bring a lamb for the burnt-offering, and the same every evening; but as soon as the lamb was offered upon the altar, the daily meat-offering had to be added representing the pure and spotless character of Christ. Now, in the same way, you and I have to bring the daily burnt-offering to God. Every morning you ought to say: Here I present myself to Thee, O God, to be a holy, living sacrifice unto Thee, which is but my reasonable service. Every day you ought to bring your daily burnt-offering, and put it upon the altar, and then, when you have thus dedicated yourself to God, and consecrated yourself to His service, have you not often felt--I come and offer myself to God, but what a poor offering it is! And when I consecrate myself upon the altar, how I need that which shall make my burnt-offering acceptable to God! And morning by morning God accepts you in the Beloved--not for what you are in yourself, but for what He is. What can I do for God, I am so weak and feeble? If I put myself upon God’s altar, can He use me for His service? Yes, He can; because to the office of Eleazar the priest pertaineth the meat-offering, and He will make acceptable your burnt-offering.

4. One thing more: I have prayed Him co give me oil for the light. I have come to Him, and I have acknowledged that even in my prayers there is a good deal of self that cannot be acceptable to God except perfumed by the merits of my Saviour; and although I have put myself upon the altar to be used as He will, I recognise that in myself dwelleth no good thing, that I want the daily meat-offering to atone for my burnt-offering. Now, what do I want? I want power--power to serve God: I want that my life may be an influence for good. I want to be a man full of power, by the Spirit of God. To the office of Eleazar the priest pertaineth the anointing with oil, and that oil goes down to the very skirts of his garments, even to the very humblest believer. I heard only yesterday of a young girl in a house of business, only sixteen years of age, whose confirmation time was a time of grand decision for God. She went back to that house of business, where the principals were practically atheists; but I was told yesterday that that young girl, whose life had been anointed with the holy anointing oil, had such power in that business that the principal and his wife have both been converted. The principal is now a lay preacher in the Church of England, and the lady of the business holds a large Bible-class for those in houses of business; one of them traces back the blessing to the quiet, holy influence of that little girl, the power of the Holy One resting upon her. Oh, that I might thus be filled with power, have the anointing oil upon me. Is not that what you want in the midst of this wilderness journey, in the midst of all the trials and temptations of daily life? (E. A. Stuart, M. A.)

Verses 34-49

Numbers 4:34-49

They were numbered . . . every one according to his service.

Proportion between number and service

Looking at the relation of the numbers to the service required of them we discover illustrations of--

I. The wisdom of God. “By this diversity of numbers among the Levite families,” saith Trapp, “God showeth His wisdom in fitting men for the work whereunto He hath appointed them, whether it requireth multitude or gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:8-12). Every one hath his own share; all are not alike gifted.”

II. The reasonableness of the divine requirements. “Though the sum total of effective Levites,” says Greenfield, “was very small compared with that of the other tribes: yet they would be far more than could be employed at once in this service. But they might carry by turns and ease one another, and thus do the whole expeditiously and cheerfully. They would also have their own tents to remove, and their own families to take care of.” There was an ample number for the performance of the work; and its distribution amongst so many would render it comparatively easy to every one. God’s claims upon us and our service are in the highest degree reasonable. He is a kind and gracious Master.

III. The exemplary obedience of the servants of the Lord. (W. Jones.)

Many in the Church who do not add to its service:


1. That the Kohathites were in all eight thousand and six hundred, from a month old and upward: but of those there were but two thousand seven hundred and fifty serviceable men, not a third part. The Gershonites in all seven thousand and five hundred: and of them but two thousand six hundred and thirty serviceable men, little more than a third part. Note--Of the many that add to the numbers of the Church, there are comparatively but few that contribute to the service of it. So it has been, and so it is; many have a place in the tabernacle, that do but little of the work of the tabernacle (Philippians 2:20-21).

2. That the Merarites were but six thousand and two hundred in all; and yet of these there were three thousand and two hundred serviceable men, which were a good deal above half. The greatest burden lay upon that family, the boards, and pillars, and sockets. And God so ordered it, that though they were the fewest in number, yet they should have the most able men among them; for whatever service God calls men to, He will furnish them for it, and give strength in proportion to the work, grace sufficient.

3. The whole number of the able men of the tribe of Levi, which entered into God’s host to war His warfare, was but eight thousand five hundred and eighty; whereas the able men of the other tribes that entered into the host of Israel to war their warfare were many more. The least of the tribes had almost four times as many able men as the Levites, and some of them more than eight times as many. For those that are engaged in the service of this world, and war after the flesh, are many more than those that are devoted to the service of God, and fight the good fight of faith. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

The numbered people:

I. Here is authority for the muster-roll--“According to the commandment of the Lord they were numbered.” It was not left to Moses to number the people without Divine sanction, else the deed might have been as evil in the sight of the Lord as that of David when he made a census of the nation: neither may any man at this day summon the saints of the Lord at his own discretion to enterprises for which they were never set apart. The armies of Israel are none of ours to lead whither we will, nor even to reckon up that the number may be told to our own honour.

1. Believers in Christ Jesus, you are now called forth to do suit and service, because like the tribe of Levi you are the Lord’s. He views you as the church of the firstborn, as the redeemed from among men, and as His peculiar inheritance, and therefore above all other men you are under His special rule and governance.

2. You are further called because this is a charge laid upon you of the Lord, to whom you specially belong. The Levites were not numbered with the rest of the nation, for their vocation was altogether different, and their whole business was “about holy things.” Ye see in this your calling, for hereunto are ye also ordained that ye may live unto the Lord alone.

3. The Lord may well call you to this service, seeing He has given you to His Son, even as He gave the Levites to Aaron, as it is written (Numbers 3:9), “They are wholly given unto him out of the children of Israel.” Because ye belong to Christ, therefore hide not yourselves from His service, but come forward with alacrity.

4. The Lord has constituted you the servants of all His people, even as He said of the Levites that they were to “do the service of the children of Israel in the tabernacle of the congregation.” We are debtors to all our brethren, and we are their servants to the full extent of our power.

II. Notice the appointment of the individuals--“Every one according to his service, and according to his burden.” By our varied gifts, positions, offices, and opportunities, we are as much set apart to special services as were the sons of Kohath, &c. Great evils arise out of persons mistaking their calling, and undertaking things of which they are not capable; and, on the other hand, the success of Christian work in a large measure arises out of places of usefulness being filled by the right men.

III. Our text is the summary of the chapter in which we have an account of the actual fulfilment of the Lord’s command by Moses. He numbered each family, and cast up the total of the tribe, at the same time mentioning in detail the peculiar service of each. We would imitate him at this important moment, and take the census of those who are consecrated to the Lord’s own service.

1. Where are you, then, who can bear the heavier service of the sanctuary, carrying its pillars, and the boards, and the sockets thereof? You are now needed to speak in the meetings, to lead the people in prayer, to order the assemblies, and to take the heavier work of this holy business. The Lord Jesus should have able men to speak for Him; He deserves the best of the best. Now is the hour, where is the man? Let no diffidence or love of ease keep one back who might make known the gospel and win a soul for Jesus.

2. But where are you who can only carry the pins and the cords? Your burden is lighter, but probably your strength is also less, and lighter though your load may be, the matters which you carry are quite as essential as the pillars and the boards. Where are you? You who can say a few words to lonely inquiring ones; you who can do no more than pray, where are you? At your posts, or idling? Answer quickly, for time and need are pressing. If the load which you can carry be so very small, be all the more ready to bear it.

3. Are you a lover of the Lord Jesus and do you wish to be omitted from the roll-call? If so, let it be known to yourself, and stated plainly to your conscience. Do not pretend to be a labourer and remain a loiterer, but openly avow to your own soul that you stand all the day idle, and feel fully justified in so doing. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

All have a work to do for God:

There is a work for all of us. And there is special work for each, work which I cannot do in a crowd, or as one of a mass, but as one man, acting singly, according to my own gifts, and under a sense of my personal responsibility. There is, no doubt, associated work for me to do; I must do my work as part of the world’s great whole, or as a member of some body. But I have a special work to do, as one individual who, by God’s plan and appointment, has a separate position, separate responsibilities, and a separate work; if I do not do it, it must be left undone. No one of my fellows can do that special work for me which I have come into the world to do; he may do a higher work, a greater work, but he cannot do my work. I cannot hand my work over to him, any more than I can hand over my responsibilities or my gifts. Nor can I delegate my work to an association of men, however well-ordered and powerful. They have their own work to do, and it may be a very noble one. But they cannot do my work for me. I must do it with these hands or with these lips which God has given me. I may do little or I may do much. That matters not. It must be my own work, and by doing my own work, poor as it may seem to some, I shall better fulfil God’s end in making me what I am, and more truly glorify His name, than if I were either going out of my own sphere to do the work of another, or calling in another into my sphere to do my proper work for me. (John Ruskin.)

Happiness of working for God:

The Rev. Andrew Fuller, the eminent Baptist minister, was depressed at one time by his people living in a low state of mind; they did nothing but sigh and groan. All his endeavours were fruitless to raise them to a higher spiritual life. Much perplexed, he made inquiry into their actions, and found that they were doing nothing for Christ. He at once set them to work, and a marked change took place; instead of sighs, groans, and gloomy faces, there were cheerfulness and faces glowing with happiness. If your state of heart and mind is low and depressed, carry the story of the life, death, and resurrection of the Saviour to some perishing soul; do something for the Master, and soon your heart will leap with joy and gratitude.

Unfaithful helpers are a burden

An overworked minister, whilst lamenting the lack of workers in his church, dozed, and, as the story goes, dreamed. He thought he was between the shafts of a four-wheeled coach, and four of his helpers were each pushing a wheel, and up the hill they all toiled together. Soon he felt the coach drag heavily, and at last he could pull no further so came to a standstill. On looking behind he discovered that his four helpers had quietly got inside to ride. How much happier and easier Christian work would be if all would do their best. (Young Men’s Review.)

Power running to waste:

We are told sometimes of the vast power unutilised as the waters leap over the Falls of Niagara; in fact, statisticians have given us calculations of the marvellous saving of steam, which means coal, which means money, that might thus be saved. We are not sure but that it has been proved that there is power enough, if it could be communicated, to give electric light to the whole continent, and no one who has walked along the banks of the Niagara River for two or three miles above the Falls, and studied the tremendous force of the current, will hesitate to doubt such statements. Is there not in this a parable? There is a whole Niagara of Christian power running to waste in our land--power that if utilised would flash the light of salvation over the world, and bring in the perfect day of Christ’s kingdom on earth. Take any of our churches, what are a large portion of the members doing? Absolutely nothing--they are in their places on the Sabbath, and just possibly at the weekly prayer-meeting; beyond that what? But, “I can do so little.” Oh, my friend, pug your little and a thousand littles of your brethren together, and it would make a power that by the grace of God would be irresistible. Niagara is but the united power of a thousand streams far, far away. (Canadian Independent.)

──The Biblical Illustrator