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Numbers Chapter Nineteen                            


Numbers 19

Chapter Contents

The ashes of a heifer. (1-10) Used to purify the unclean. (11-22)

Commentary on Numbers 19:1-10

The heifer was to be wholly burned. This typified the painful sufferings of our Lord Jesus, both in soul and body, as a sacrifice made by fire, to satisfy God's justice for man's sin. These ashes are said to be laid up as a purification for sin, because, though they were only to purify from ceremonial uncleanness, yet they were a type of that purification for sin which our Lord Jesus made by his death. The blood of Christ is laid up for us in the word and sacraments, as a fountain of merit, to which by faith we may have constant recourse, for cleansing our consciences.

Commentary on Numbers 19:11-22

Why did the law make a corpse a defiling thing? Because death is the wages of sin, which entered into the world by it, and reigns by the power of it. The law could not conquer death, nor abolish it, as the gospel does, by bringing life and immortality to light, and so introducing a better hope. As the ashes of the heifer signified the merit of Christ, so the running water signified the power and grace of the blessed Spirit, who is compared to rivers of living water; and it is by his work that the righteousness of Christ is applied to us for our cleansing. Those who promise themselves benefit by the righteousness of Christ, while they submit not to the grace and influence of the Holy Spirit, do but deceive themselves; we cannot be purified by the ashes, otherwise than in the running water. What use could there be in these appointments, if they do not refer to the doctrines concerning the sacrifice of Christ? But comparing them with the New Testament, the knowledge to be got from them is evident. The true state of fallen man is shown in these institutions. Here we learn the defiling nature of sin, and are warned to avoid evil communications.

── Matthew HenryConcise Commentary on Numbers


Numbers 19

Verse 2

[2] This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke:

Red — A fit colour to shadow forth the bloody nature of sin, and the blood of Christ, from which this water and all other rites had their purifying virtue.

No blemish — A fit type of Christ.

Upon which never came yoke — Whereby may be signified, either that Christ in himself was free from all the yoke or obligation of God's command, till for our sakes he put himself under the law; or that Christ was not forced to undertake our burden and cross, but did voluntarily chuse it. He was bound and held with no other cords but those of his own love.

Verse 3

[3] And ye shall give her unto Eleazar the priest, that he may bring her forth without the camp, and one shall slay her before his face:

Eleazar — Who was the second priest, and in some cases, the deputy of the high-priest. To him, not to Aaron, because this service made him unclean for a season, and consequently unfit for holy ministrations, whereas the high-priest was, as far as possibly he could, to be preserved from all sorts of defilement, fit for his high and holy work.

Without the camp — Partly because it was reputed an unclean and accursed thing, being laden with the sins of all the people; and partly to signify that Christ should suffer without the camp, in the place where malefactors suffered.

Verse 4

[4] And Eleazar the priest shall take of her blood with his finger, and sprinkle of her blood directly before the tabernacle of the congregation seven times:

Before the tabernacle — Or, towards the tabernacle, standing at a good distance from it, even without the camp, yet turning and looking towards it. For here is no intimation that he went into the camp before this work was done, but rather the contrary is implied, Numbers 19:7. And because being defiled by this work he could not come near the tabernacle, it was sufficient for him to turn and look towards it. This signified his presenting this blood before the Lord by way of atonement for his and the people's sins, and his expectation of acceptance and pardon only from God, and from his mercy-seat in the tabernacle. And this typified the satisfaction that was made to God, by the death of Christ, who by the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, and did as it were sprinkle his own blood before the sanctuary, when he said, Into thy hands I commend my spirit!

Verse 5

[5] And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; her skin, and her flesh, and her blood, with her dung, shall he burn:

Burn the heifer — To signify the sharp and grievous sufferings of Christ for our sins.

Her blood — All of it, but what was spent in sprinkling.

Verse 6

[6] And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer.

Cedar-wood, hyssop, scarlet — All which are here burnt, and as it were offered to God, that they might be sanctified to this holy use for the future; for of these kinds of things was the sprinkle made wherewith the unclean were sprinkled, Leviticus 14:4.

Verse 7

[7] Then the priest shall wash his clothes, and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he shall come into the camp, and the priest shall be unclean until the even.

Shall be unclean — Partly to teach us the imperfection of the Levitical priesthood, in which the priest himself was defiled by some parts of his work, and partly to shew that Christ himself, though he had no sin of his own, yet was reputed by men, and judged by God, as a sinful person, by reason of our sins which were laid upon him.

Verse 9

[9] And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up without the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the children of Israel for a water of separation: it is a purification for sin.

For a water — Or, to the water, that is, to be put to the water, or mixed with it.

Of separation — Appointed for the cleansing of them that are in a state of separation, who for their uncleanness are separated from the congregation.

It is a purification for sin — Heb. a sin, that is, an offering for sin, or rather a mean for expiation or cleansing of sin. And this was a type of that purification for sin, which our Lord Jesus made by his death.

Verse 10

[10] And he that gathereth the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: and it shall be unto the children of Israel, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among them, for a statute for ever.

The stranger — A proselyte.

Verse 12

[12] He shall purify himself with it on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean: but if he purify not himself the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean.

With it — With the water of separation.

On the third day — To typify Christ's resurrection on that day by which we are cleansed or sanctified.

Verse 13

[13] Whosoever toucheth the dead body of any man that is dead, and purifieth not himself, defileth the tabernacle of the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from Israel: because the water of separation was not sprinkled upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is yet upon him.

Whosoever toucheth — If this transgression be done presumptuously; for if it was done ignorantly, he was only to offer sacrifice.

Defiled — By approaching to it in his uncleanness: for holy things or places were ceremonially defiled with the touch of any unclean person or thing.

Is upon him — He continues in his guilt, not now to be washed away by this water, but to be punished by cutting off.

Verse 16

[16] And whosoever toucheth one that is slain with a sword in the open fields, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.

With a sword — Or by any other violent way.

Verse 17

[17] And for an unclean person they shall take of the ashes of the burnt heifer of purification for sin, and running water shall be put thereto in a vessel:

Running water — Waters flowing from a spring or river, which are the purest. These manifestly signify God's spirit, which is oft compared to water, and by which alone true purification is obtained. Those who promise themselves benefit by the righteousness of Christ, while they submit not to the influence of his spirit, do but deceive themselves; for they cannot be purified by the ashes, otherwise than in the running water.

Verse 20

[20] But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he hath defiled the sanctuary of the LORD: the water of separation hath not been sprinkled upon him; he is unclean.

That shall not purify himself — Shall contemptuously refuse to submit to this way of purification.

Verse 21

[21] And it shall be a perpetual statute unto them, that he that sprinkleth the water of separation shall wash his clothes; and he that toucheth the water of separation shall be unclean until even.

Shall wash his clothes — Because he is unclean. It is strange, that the same water should cleanse one person, and defile another. But God would have it so, to teach us that it did not cleanse by any virtue in itself, or in the work done, but only by virtue of God's appointment: to mind the laws of the imperfection of their priesthood, and their ritual purifications and expiations, and consequently of the necessity of a better priest and sacrifice and way of purifying; and to shew that the efficacy of God's ordinances doth not depend upon the person or quality of his ministers, because the same person who, was polluted himself could and did cleanse others.

He that toucheth the water — Either by sprinkling of it, or by being sprinkled with it; for even he that was cleansed by it, was not fully cleansed as soon as he was sprinkled, but only at the even of that day.

Verse 22

[22] And whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean; and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even.

The unclean person — Not he who is so only by touching the water of separation, Numbers 19:21, but he who is so by the greater sort of uncleanness, which lasted seven days, and which was not removed without the use of this water of purification.

── John WesleyExplanatory Notes on Numbers


19 Chapter 19


Verses 1-22

Numbers 19:1-22

A red heifer without spot.

The red heifer

I. It is undoubtedly true that even the true Israelite, the true believer in Christ, is the subject of daily defilement.

1. Some of our defilement arises from the fact that we do actually come into contact with sin, here imaged in the corruption of death. The best of men are men at the best, and while they are only men they will still sin. We are in close connection with sin, because sin is in ourselves. It has dyed us through and through, staining the very warp and woof of our nature, and until we lay aside these bodies and are admitted to the Church of the first-born above, we shall never cease very intimate connection with sin.

2. Moreover, we get defilement from companionship with sinners. This dusty world must leave some mark upon our white garments let us travel as carefully as we may. “I am black because the sun hath looked upon me,” must ever be the confession of the bride of Christ. This world is full of the spiritually dead, and since we live we must be often rendered unclean among the sinful, and hence we need a daily cleansing to fit us for daily fellowship with a holy God.

3. One reason why we are so constantly defiled is our want of watchfulness. You will observe that everything in the tent of a dead man was defiled except vessels that were covered over. Any vessel which was left open was at once unclean. You and I ought to cover up our hearts from the contamination of sin. It were well for us if we kept our heart with all diligence, since out of it are the issues of life.

4. Sin is so desperately evil that the very slightest sin defiles it. He who touched a bone was unclean. It was not necessary to put your hand upon the clay-cold corpse to be defiled; the accidently touching with the foot a bone carelessly thrown up by the grave-digger; even the touching it by the ploughman as he turned up his furrow, even this was sufficient to make him unclean. Sin is such an immeasurably vile thing that the slightest iniquity makes the Christian foul--a thought, an imagination, the glancing of an eye.

5. Sin, even when it is not seen, defiles, for a man was defiled who touched a grave. Oh, how many graves there are of sin--things that are fair to look upon, externally admirable and internally abominable!

6. The Jew was not only in danger of defilement in his tent and when he walked the roads, but he was in danger m the open fields; for you will observe, it says, that if he touched a body that had been slain in the open fields, or a bone, he should be unclean. Wherever you go you find sin!

II. A purification has been provided. The ransomed Church of God need daily to be washed in the fountain, and the mercy is that the precious blood shall never lose its power, but its constant efficacy shall abide till they are, every one of them, “Saved to sin no more.”

1. There is a propitiation provided for daily defilement, for first of all, if it were not so, how melancholy were your case and mine!

2. The Lord must have provided a daily cleansing for our daily defilement, for if not, where were His wisdom, where His love? He has provided for everything else.

3. The work of our Lord Jesus Christ assures us of this. What is there opened for the house of David, for sin, and for uncleanness? A cistern? A cistern that might be emptied, a waterpot, such as that which stood at Cana’s marriage feast, and might be drained? No; there is a fountain open for sin and uncleanness. We wash, the fountain flows; we wash again, the fountain flows still. From the great depths of the deity of Christ, the eternal merit of His passion comes everlastingly welling up. Wash! wash! It is inexhaustible, for it is fountain-fulness.

4. The work of the Holy Spirit also meets the case, for what is His business but constantly to take of the things of Christ and reveal them unto us; constantly to quicken, to enlighten, and to comfort? Why all this but because we are constantly in need, perpetually being defiled, and therefore wanting perpetually to have the purification applied?

5. Facts show that there is a purification for present guilt. The saints of old fell into sin, but they did not remain there.

III. The red heifer sets forth in a most admirable manner the daily purification for daily sin.

1. It was a heifer--an unusual thing for a sacrifice to be a female; and we scarcely know why it should be in this case, unless indeed, to make the substitution more evident. This red heifer stood for all the house of Israel--for the whole Church of God; and the Church is always looked upon and considered in Scripture as being the spouse--the bride--always feminine. Perhaps, to make the substitution obvious and complete, to show that this heifer stood in the stead and place of the whole seed of Israel, it was chosen rather than the customary bullock.

2. It was a red heifer--bringing to the mind of the Israelites the idea of blood, which was always associated with atonement and putting away of sin. Surely when we think of Christ, we always associate Him with the streaming gore when we are under a sense of sin.

3. It was a heifer without spot--denoting the perfection of Christ’s character.

4. Observe that the red heifer was one whereon never came yoke. Perhaps this sets forth how willingly Christ came to die for us; not forced from heaven, but freely delivering Himself for us all. An interesting circumstance about this red heifer is that it was not provided by the priests; it was not provided out of the usual funds of the sanctuary, nor yet by the princes, nor by any one person.

5. The children of Israel provided it. What for? Why, that as they came out of their tents in the desert, or their houses in Jerusalem, and saw the priests leading the red heifer, every man, and every woman, and every child might say, “I have a share in that heifer, I have a share in that victim which is being led out of the city to be consumed.” I wish--oh! I would to God I dare hope, that every man and every woman here could say, “I have a share in Jesus Christ,” for that is the meaning of this national provision, to let us see how Christ shed His blood for all His people, and they have all a part and all an interest in Him.

6. As we noted what this victim was, there is yet to be observed what was done with it. Again, let me beg you to refer to your Bibles to see what became of this red heifer.

The law of the red heifer applied

The record of the law of the red heifer unfolds some traces of the manner, times, and substance of God’s teaching in those days when the children of Israel “could not steadfastly look to the end.”

1. His method was largely to use symbols, but not to the withholding of words. As objects lying in darkness cannot be presented but must be represented, so the truths suited to the manhood of our race were taught in that method to earlier generations.

2. The symbols of the Jewish worship were instituted at special times. God did not put it forth as a system. He did not place it as a full-grown tree in a wood. It is like a house to which have been added rooms and offices and hall as the growth of the family has demanded more scope in which to maintain new and higher thoughts. Wider views of what they need towards God cause Him to send out the beams of a light which is to dispel every doubt and fear.

I. Liability for social evil. What was there in the fact that a virulent disease had deprived so many of life, to produce a conviction that God cannot be approached for worship? Why should contact with a corpse, or entrance into a tent in which human life had ebbed away, or even a bone, or a grave trod upon, be as a barrier blocking up the way of the people to the sanctuary? Might the survivors not reason thus: “If those who have died did wrong we have been equally wrong; if we are not erased from the roll of the living there is, notwithstanding, an evil chargeable to us; partakers in a like offence we are worthy of a like condemnation; the evil has not exhausted itself on them, and we are liable in some form for their calamities; we cannot in this state of pollution go into the presence of God--is there not needed a purification from those social ills whose last and most affecting sign is death?”

II. The ignominy of death. The law recited in this chapter distinctly informs us that the presence of, or contact with, the signs of the death of mankind, separated from communion with God in His sanctuary. Would not thought be excited of some such form as this--“It is clear that there is no moral defilement in mere closeness to the signs of death, not to come into contact with them might be a sinful act--and yet we are treated, as to our standing before God, just as if we had been guilty of gross crimes. If God-appointed duties and circumstances render it unbecoming, and even impossible, that we should keep free from those relations to the dead mentioned by this law, why should we incur such a fearful result? Surely there must be some virulent spreading poison rankling in men’s death. If by its presence or touch an impassable gulf at once sinks between God and us, what an offensive attitude against Him must death assume I Much more than mere sensational shrinking should creep over us before it. How can we avoid engraving deeply on our hearts the thought that it is dishonourable to die!” What is in death to make it so? This: that death is the seal of a Divine curse on man.

III. Freedom from the consequences of sin is by application of a prepared remedy. The several parts in the process of preparing the water of cleansing bear emblems to show what God requires for freeing from sin. The slaying of the heifer and the sprinkling of its blood laid bare the foundation principles, that “it is the blood which maketh atonement for the soul”--that “without shedding of blood is no remission of sins.” Everything that blocked up the way to the favour of the Lord is removed by the appointed sacrifices. He is reconcileable, and ready to count the evils of the congregation satisfied for. Were the Israelites, then, entitled to say, “The offerings of atonement are made; sins are taken away; we are free from all further hindrances to acceptance ; we need to care nothing more about what happens to us”? No. If acceptable offerings have been made for the people, yet events come to pass from which defilement will be caused to individuals, and, if this personal unfitness be not removed, perilous consequences must follow. Uncleanness incurred from the dead--the great sign of moral pollution--prevents approach to the holy Lord God. Separated from His presence on earth is a forecasting of an eternal separation--“that soul shall be cut off from Israel.” But He has a remedy for this too. He provides means of purification, and thus of renewed access to Himself. Not only is the blood of bulls and of goats shed, but the ashes of a heifer is also to “ sprinkle the unclean, in order to sanctify to the purifying of the flesh,” and render fit for all the privileges of acceptable worship.

IV. To be without fitness for standing before God acceptably is inexcusable and irretrievable. Once purified did not do away with the necessity of being purified again, when another defilement had been incurred. The new impurity must be removed by a new application, and the cleansing remedy was constantly available (Numbers 19:9-10). God keeps in store that odour which can counteract the poisoning air of death; that which will restore to health at all times and never lose its efficacy; that which can be applied for with the fullest confidence that it is provided against the renewed impediments to serving God acceptably, and warrants “boldness to enter into the holiest.” What could justify neglect of this remedy? What evasion was possible when the uncleanness was so manifestly chargeable, and the provision for removing it so easily procurable? Must not every trifler, delayer, or neglecter be held guilty, without any palliation, of despising his Lord’s grace and might? (D. G. Watt, M. A.)

The ordinance of the red heifer; a parable of the pollution of sin and the Divine method of cleansing therefrom

I. The defiling nature of sin.

1. Sin is defiling in its nature.

2. The defiling power of sin is of great virulence.

3. The defiling power of sin is widespread.

II. The necessity of cleansing from sin.

III. The provision of cleansing from sin.

1. It is Divine in its origin.

2. It involves the sacrifice of the most perfect life.

3. It is invariable in its efficacy.

IV. The application of the provision for cleansing from sin. (W. Jones.)

The red heifer an analogue of the Christ

I. In its characteristics.

1. Fulness of life.

2. Perfection of life.

II. In the treatment to which it was subjected.

1. The heifer was sacrificed.

2. The heifer was sacrificed “without the camp.”

III. In the purpose for which it was designed.

1. The red heifer was intended to cleanse from ceremonial defilement.

2. The ashes of the heifer were efficacious for this purpose: “How much more shall the blood of Christ,” &c. (W. Jones.)

The ordinance of the red heifer

The special feature of the new ordinance is in the means taken to make one sacrifice available for an indefinite number of cases. This was done by the concentration, so to speak, of all the elements of the sacrifice in the ashes which were to be preserved. Here we have the explanation of the casting “into the midst of the burning of the heifer” of “cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet” (Numbers 19:6). These represent the appliances for sprinkling: the hyssop stalk with scarlet wool wrapped round it, fastened on a piece of cedar wood, which was held in the hand. By the casting of these into the burning the idea of sprinkling was, as it were, perpetuated in the ashes which were the residuum of the whole. These ashes could of course be preserved and used for an indefinite time; and each time they were used, the ideas which had, so to speak, been burnt into them, would be impressed upon the minds and hearts of the devout. The ashes then represented the power of a past sacrifice; “even in its ashes live its former fires.” The use of the running water with the ashes (Numbers 19:17) has the same significance as in the ritual for the cleansing of the leper in Leviticus 14:1-57. In making application of the ordinance of the red heifer to ourselves, we find it specially instructive in regard to the restoration of that communion with God which ought to be the chief joy of the Christian, and which is too often broken by the contracting of stains, so difficult to avoid, with sin “reigning unto death” all around us. There are those who, under these circumstances, feel peculiarly discouraged. They have the impression that it must be exceedingly difficult to get back to their former position. They remember how long it took them at first to be reconciled to God; and they think how much more difficult it must be now that the evil has been allowed after the experience of God’s saving grace. It seems a long and hard way back; and they have not courage to begin again. It is a mistake The way back again is not long and hand. There are the ashes of the heifer and the running water close at hand. There need be no delay, as if a new animal must be obtained, and brought to the priest, and killed at the altar, and so forth. There is a shorter way. Look back to the Sacrifice offered long ago once for all. There is the running water of the Word, which has in it, as it were in solution, the strong ashes of the Sacrifice. There for evermore is stored the virtue of that blood which “cleanseth from all sin.” There need be no delay. For the ashes and the water, we have the Cross and the Word; and all that is wanted is the immediate use of God’s “perpetual statute for purifying the unclean” (Hebrews 9:13-14). (J. M. Gibson, D. D.)

The red heifer a wilderness type

A thoughtful student of Scripture would naturally feel disposed to inquire why it is that we get this type in Numbers and not in Leviticus. In the first seven chapters of the latter book we have a very elaborate statement of the doctrine of sacrifice; and yet we have no allusion whatever to the red heifer. Why is this? We believe it furnishes another striking illustration of the distinctive character of our book. The red heifer is, pre-eminently, a wilderness type. It was God’s provision for defilements by the way, and it prefigures the death of Christ as a purification for sin, to meet our need in passing through a defiling world, home to our eternal rest above. When, with the eye of faith, we gaze upon the Lord Jesus, we not only see Him to be the spotless One, in His own holy Person, but also One who never bore the yoke of sin. He speaks of “My yoke” (Matthew 11:29); it was the yoke of implicit subjection to the Father’s will in all things. This was the only yoke He ever wore; and this yoke was never off, for one moment, during the entire of His spotless and perfect career--from the manger, where He lay a helpless babe, to the Cross, where He expired as a victim. But He wore no yoke of sin. Let this be distinctly understood. He went to the Cross to expiate our sins, to lay the groundwork of our perfect purification from all sin; but He did this as One who had never, at any time during His blessed life, worn the yoke of sin. He was “without sin”; and, as such, was perfectly fitted to the great and glorious work of expiation. “Wherein is no blemish, and whereon never came yoke.” It is quite as needful to remember and weigh the force of the word “whereon,” as of the word “wherein.” Both expressions are designed by the Holy Ghost to set forth the perfection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who was not only internally spotless, but also externally free from every trace of sin. Neither in His Person, nor yet in His relationships, was He in any wise obnoxious to the claims of sin or death. He--adored for ever be His name!--entered into all the reality of our circumstances and condition, but in Him was no sin, and on Him no yoke of sin. (C. H. Mackintosh.)

──The Biblical Illustrator