Book of Numbers Chapter Four Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
You might wonder who decides it when someone in a local assembly becomes a church parking lot attendant, deacon, pastor or kitchen worker. The Lord is involved in such decisions and notice that those in this chapter were imperfect men who were selected for very important posts. Some of them would do well, whereas others in the future from the moment of these verses, acted poorly. All our poor decisions are the result of bad choices made at life junctures when we are actually able to do better, or God would not have chosen us in the first place. We are imperfect and need to pray for God's help in everything.
This chapter reveals the Lord's assignments for the descendants of the sons of Levi, named Kohath, Gershon, and Merari. Here are Verses 1-4: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 2 'Take a census of the descendants of Kohath from among the sons of Levi, by their families, by their fathers’ households, 3 from thirty years and upward, even to fifty years old, all who enter the service to do the work in the tent of meeting. 4 This is the work of the descendants of Kohath in the tent of meeting, concerning the most holy things." Kohath was the grandfather of Aaron, Moses and Miriam. The descendants of Kohath were allowed to be involved with the "most holy things" of the earthly Tabernacle because of their relationship to Levi, great grandson of Abraham, and to Aaron, chosen to be the first high priest of Israel. Because of OUR trust in the Lord, He has "raised US up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Colossians 2:6)—we touch the holy things of God through faith in our Lord.
We are not saved by religious practices, but they can contain deep and meaningful symbolism, revealing much to us. Our words about the Lord are intended to bring others to Him, and so are our actions. The practice of communion contains few words, as does baptism, but they are designed by the Lord to reveal His purpose for us through participation in them. The same is true in this chapter about the work assignments in this wilderness Tabernacle. We are to encounter these objects and actions in Scripture, understand, and be drawn to faith in the Lord. Verses 5-10: "When the camp sets out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and they shall take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it; 6 and they shall lay a covering of porpoise skin on it, and shall spread over it a cloth of pure blue, and shall insert its poles. 7 Over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall also spread a cloth of blue and put on it the dishes and the pans and the sacrificial bowls and the jars for the drink offering, and the continual bread shall be on it. 8 They shall spread over them a cloth of scarlet material, and cover the same with a covering of porpoise skin, and they shall insert its poles. 9 Then they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lampstand for the light, along with its lamps and its snuffers, and its trays and all its oil vessels, by which they serve it; 10 and they shall put it and all its utensils in a covering of porpoise skin, and shall put it on the carrying bars." When you prepare a sermon or clean up the sanctuary after a service, you are touching the holy things of God. It was true for levi's descendants, and it is true for you. As the sons of Kohath took down the veil of the screen and covered the ark with it, they were to wonder at the holiness of God and want Him. Did they see the pure blue of the animal skin coverings and wonder if God is high like the blue sky above? Did they see the bread and catch a glimpse of the Lord who is the "the bread of life" (John 6:47-48)? As they inserted the poles into the brackets on the sides of the objects in these verses, they were lifting more than lamps, dishes and pans—they portrayed the Son of Man who was to come, the One "lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:14-15).
The duties of the sons of Kohath continue in Verses 11-16: "Over the golden altar they shall spread a blue cloth and cover it with a covering of porpoise skin, and shall insert its poles; 12 and they shall take all the utensils of service, with which they serve in the sanctuary, and put them in a blue cloth and cover them with a covering of porpoise skin, and put them on the carrying bars. 13 Then they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it. 14 They shall also put on it all its utensils by which they serve in connection with it: the firepans, the forks and shovels and the basins, all the utensils of the altar; and they shall spread a cover of porpoise skin over it and insert its poles. 15 When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they will not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry. 16 The responsibility of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest is the oil for the light and the fragrant incense and the continual grain offering and the anointing oil—the responsibility of all the tabernacle and of all that is in it, with the sanctuary and its furnishings." It's quite a concept to think of carrying something without actually touching it, but that's what they did. They would cover the holy objects in the Tabernacle, the Tent of God, and then insert poles into brackets at the sides of those objects, lifting the poles but not touching the objects to be carried. Aaron the high priest had two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar. The suggestion here is that Eleazar led the sons of Kohath in their duties; he was the one in charge of lighting the menorah and was responsible for the incense, grain offerings and anointing oil. Jesus would later shout in the Temple, "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12), referring to the light in this wilderness Tabernacle. The oil is seen in Zechariah 4:2-6 as a representation of the Holy Spirit. We've already discussed the "bread" as depicting the Messiah, and the incense is revealed in Revelation 5:8 as "the prayers of the saints." Beautiful symbols given to show us the Lord and His kingdom; His intentions for us.
Verses 17-20: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 18 'Do not let the tribe of the families of the Kohathites be cut off from among the Levites. 19 But do this to them that they may live and not die when they approach the most holy objects: Aaron and his sons shall go in and assign each of them to his work and to his load; 20 but they shall not go in to see the holy objects even for a moment, or they will die.'" The Kohathites were allowed to come close to the holy objects of the Tabernacle but a certain distance was established, and they could actually DIE if they came too close. In that context, you should read with great interest the promise in Hebrews 10:19-20, given to those who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ: "Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the holiest by the blood of Jesus, to a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh." Through faith in Jesus, we are IN the holiest, the holy of holies, through the living way He has provided, dying in our place to give us life. Our salvation is not some casual thing—we are SAVED by the blood of Jesus, into an eternal life beyond the dreams of those who have tried to be saved by keeping some kind of Law. We are within God's Holy Place by His grace, through faith in Jesus Christ.
The "Gershon" of Verses 21-28, was another son of Levi: "Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 22 'Take a census of the sons of Gershon also, by their fathers’ households, by their families; 23 from thirty years and upward to fifty years old, you shall number them; all who enter to perform the service to do the work in the tent of meeting. 24 This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, in serving and in carrying: 25 they shall carry the curtains of the tabernacle and the tent of meeting with its covering and the covering of porpoise skin that is on top of it, and the screen for the doorway of the tent of meeting, 26 and the hangings of the court, and the screen for the doorway of the gate of the court which is around the tabernacle and the altar, and their cords and all the equipment for their service; and all that is to be done, they shall perform. 27 All the service of the sons of the Gershonites, in all their loads and in all their work, shall be performed at the command of Aaron and his sons; and you shall assign to them as a duty all their loads. 28 This is the service of the families of the sons of the Gershonites in the tent of meeting, and their duties shall be under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest.'" The Gershonites were given the very important task of breaking down and setting up the curtains, curtain cords, screens and equipment associated with those items, each time the now very large nation of Israel started or stopped in the journey from their present position to the promised land. They were to be supervised by Ithamar, son of Aaron the high priest.
Merari was the third and last son of Levi, and the duties of those descendants are revealed in Verses 29-33: "As for the sons of Merari, you shall number them by their families, by their fathers’ households; 30 from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, you shall number them, everyone who enters the service to do the work of the tent of meeting. 31 Now this is the duty of their loads, for all their service in the tent of meeting: the boards of the tabernacle and its bars and its pillars and its sockets, 32 and the pillars around the court and their sockets and their pegs and their cords, with all their equipment and with all their service; and you shall assign each man by name the items he is to carry. 33 This is the service of the families of the sons of Merari, according to all their service in the tent of meeting, under the direction of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest." The Gershonites were assigned to carry the curtains and these men of Merari were assigned to bear the tent pegs, poles, sockets and other devices that held the Tabernacle curtains upright when the nation was encamped. As it was for the Gershonites, their supervisor was Ithamar, son of Aaron.
Verses 34-49 are a numbering, a census of the sons of Levi, the Levites who were to care for items of the wilderness Tabernacle: "So Moses and Aaron and the leaders of the congregation numbered the sons of the Kohathites by their families and by their fathers’ households, 35 from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, everyone who entered the service for work in the tent of meeting. 36 Their numbered men by their families were 2,750. 37 These are the numbered men of the Kohathite families, everyone who was serving in the tent of meeting, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of the Lord through Moses. 38 The numbered men of the sons of Gershon by their families and by their fathers’ households, 39 from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, everyone who entered the service for work in the tent of meeting. 40 Their numbered men by their families, by their fathers’ households, were 2,630. 41 These are the numbered men of the families of the sons of Gershon, everyone who was serving in the tent of meeting, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of the Lord. 42 The numbered men of the families of the sons of Merari by their families, by their fathers’ households, 43 from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, everyone who entered the service for work in the tent of meeting. 44 Their numbered men by their families were 3,200. 45 These are the numbered men of the families of the sons of Merari, whom Moses and Aaron numbered according to the commandment of the Lord through Moses. 46 All the numbered men of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the leaders of Israel numbered, by their families and by their fathers’ households, 47 from thirty years and upward even to fifty years old, everyone who could enter to do the work of service and the work of carrying in the tent of meeting. 48 Their numbered men were 8,580. 49 According to the commandment of the Lord through Moses, they were numbered, everyone by his serving or carrying; thus these were his numbered men, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.
This census would never have taken place except that, in Verse 2, the Lord explicitly told Moses: "Take a census!" Moses had learned, as we should, to act for the Lord as HE leads us. Our true assignment is not based on any kind of "career" decision, but it is instead based on the leading of God.
Father, You have an assignment for me. I have not fully understood, but You do, and I ask that You will show me what it is You want me to do. Thank You, Lord, for leading me, and I pray that I will see ever more clearly the holiness and love that is involved in what I am to accomplish in Your Name. In Jesus Name. Amen.