Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker

Numbers 2

Verses 1-34

Divine Appointments

Numbers 2

This chapter deals with the order of the tribes in their tents. Though at first we may seem to have no relation to this order, at last it may be perceived that we are in vital relations to it. Let us first set before the mind vividly the literal exactness of the case. The camp of Judah was to set forth first; the camp of Reuben was to set forth in the second rank; the camp of Ephraim was to go forward in the third rank; the camp of Dan was to go hindmost with their standards. Who arranged this order? The answer is in the first verse: "And the Lord spake unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying,... the camp of Judah... first;... the camp of Reuben... second;... the camp of Ephraim... third;... the camp of Dan... hindmost." It was a military tone; there was nothing suggestive in its music; it was imperative, complete, final. Keep positiveness of speech quite vividly before the mind, even at the expense of some tediousness in words. Judah first, Reuben second, Ephraim third;—these terms are arithmetical and may be accepted without murmuring; but the next term is more than arithmetical: the camp of Dan "hindmost." That seems to be a word of stigma and of inferiority and of rebuke. Had the numbers been,—first, second, third, fourth, the arithmetic would have been complete; but to be hindmost is to be further behind than to be merely fourth; it is to have the position marked so broadly as almost to amount to a brand of tribal degradation. All this was to be done; it never could have been done but by divine appointment. A third party may arrange a controversy, or a position as between two men; but come to handle hundreds of thousands of men—nations, solar systems, constellations innumerable, and we can have no compromising, temporising, giving and taking on a small scale, so as to balance the pride of all parties; there must be sovereignty, fiat,—the "let it be" out of which all smaller imperatives are struck, like sparks from an infinite flame.

Faith in the divine appointment could alone secure religious contentment under such circumstances. This is as necessary to-day, in view of the distribution of men, with their various gifts and their endlessly varied vocations. What is that mystic, subtle, nameless power that keeps society together, with its diversities, antagonisms, and contradictions? What is the astronomical force that so whirls society around an invisible centre as to sink the mountains into plains and lift up the valleys to a common level? Have we not to-day precisely this order in society intellectually,—Judah first, Reuben second, Ephraim third, Dan hindmost? This is not ancient history: it is the military rule and law of the passing time. Men cannot alter it. Ambition attempts to change relations and positions, and ambition dies in the abortive effort. The Lord will have his way in the whirlwind and in the fire and the storm. To deny it is to waste words; to contend against it is "to kick against the pricks"; to say "We will not have this Man to reign over us," is to utter an empty gasconade—a brag that bursts with its own swelling. We are standing in the region of law; we are bounded on every side. Every man has his gift, into the use of which the King will inquire when he comes back from the far country. How is it that men, being first, second, third, and hindmost in the matter of circumstances, are still knit together by a mysterious bond? The rich man cannot do without the poor man; the palace has its kitchen; the throne has its retinue of attendants, and if one be absent the harmony of the service is impaired. We, being many members, are one body; the hand cannot say to the foot—"I have no need of thee"; nor can the ear say to the eye, nor the eye to the ear—"I have no need of thee." Yet some parts are honourable, and some dishonourable; some comely, some uncomely. How is this? Marvellous if society made itself!—requiring quite a miraculous infidel to believe that it invented its own harmony. "The Lord reigneth; let the earth rejoice."

Order is but another word for purpose, or another word for mind. This mechanism was not self-invented or self-regulated; behind this military table of position and movement is the God of the whole universe. He is behind everything. It requires the whole Trinity to sustain the tiny insect that trembles out its little life in the dying sunbeam; even that frail heart does not throb by having some small portion of the divine energy detached to attend to its affairs. Were there but one man in all the universe, he could only subsist by the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence of the Triune God. The Cross was not built for millions, but for the sinner, though he be the solitary offender in creation. We see in everything that the amount of order which is represented suggests the extent and quality of the mind behind it. Acknowledging this in things earthly and human, why should we deny the doctrine in relation to things not local, not human, and not transient? Singular, if order means so much in little things, but means nothing in great affairs! A marvellous thing, we say, is a book. There are in an English book but some six-and-twenty letters; a most marvellous thing if some skilled printer, shaking the six-and-twenty letters out of his box, let them fall into the shape of "Paradise Lost"! Might such a miracle occur? The world is amazed by the majesty of the poem; the world devotes monumental brass and marble to bear to other ages the name of the poet who so arranged the letters. A most wonderful thing, then, if six-and-twenty letters cannot shape themselves into a poem, or be shaped by some magical toss of the mechanician"s hand, that Prayer of Manasseh, woman, and child, of all grades, and classes, and varieties of tongue, gifts, genius, and all stars and systems and constellations, should have rolled themselves into position and kept together in their magnificence without any mind, reason, or purpose, being above, below, or around, to account for and interpret into higher meanings the massive consolidation! The more exquisite the mechanism, the more valuable the result of its working. What a mechanism is the world! How the earth rolls on in the midst of all its revolutions and burials and tragedies! The same world, yet not the same two moments together, having a permanent quantity centralised in the very heart of changing phenomena. The wise man looks for the permanent quantity; he is not a mere grubber amongst details and appearances and fleeting thoughts and complexions: he says,—Under all this is something that abides. To find out the eternal quantity is the philosophy of history and the philosophy of religion. We may know much about details, and yet know nothing about the very thing which brings them into order and flushes them with the colour of moral purpose and meaning. Who knows most about the history of England: the man who has been in every market-town, who knows the market day of every borough, the name of every village, the departure and arrival of every train, the name of every mayor in every municipality; or the man who knows England by its conquests, its sovereigns, the philosophy of its legislation, the measure of its progress, its relation to other kingdoms, the general set and purpose of its civilisation, but who knows nothing of any market-town in the whole country? We assign the superiority at once. A country is not an affair of market-towns, and comings and goings of trains, and changes of local officers; it is a genius, a spirit, a purpose, and to find that is to find out the true history of the land. It is so with Providence, with the Almighty Ruler-ship that is above us and around us. We are affrighted by details, pained by cases of personal suffering, and are at a loss to reconcile individual anecdotes with the beneficence of a universal Providence; but we must look for the central and eternal quantity—and that is plainly written in all history and in all enlightened consciousness: the sum of it was never so grandly expressed as by the Pauline eloquence—"All things work together for good to them that love God"—that are in the rhythm and majesty of the divine music. Let us not be traders in details, puzzle-makers amid the little occurrences of the parish, but students in the temple of Wisdom of Solomon, worshippers at the throne of light, recognising eternity amid the fluctuation and the tumult of time.

Dan was to go hindmost. The hindmost position has its advantages. It is a rule in the higher criticism that a critic, on looking at a picture, shall first look for its beauties. That rule we have not yet introduced into the Church; but that is the rule in all the higher life of civilisation. The critic, looking at the picture, first inquires into the beauties, the fascinations, the marks of ability, the signature of genius; and then reluctantly suggests the drawback or the point of inferiority, and submits it rather for consideration than for judgment. We ought, surely, to look so upon the picture of Providence, the map of human life, the marvellous academy of society. We ought oftentimes to pity the foremost men. The greater the statesman, the greater the responsibility he has to sustain; the greater the genius, the more poignant its occasional agonies; the more sensitive the nature, the more is every wound felt, the more is every concussion regarded with fear. The foremost soldiers will be in battle first; we who are hindmost may have only to shout the hosanna of victory. Judah is first, and may have first to fight; Dan is hindmost, and may take some pride in Judah"s victories. The pioneer traveller has the hardships to undergo; he was first in honour, but he was first in suffering. We travel on the road he made. This age is the hindmost in procession of time; is it therefore the inferior age? The nineteenth century comes after all the eighteen; but it therefore comes on the firmer ground, with the larger civilisation, with the ampler library, with the more extended resources; it comes with a thousand-handed ability because it is the hindmost of the days. Take this view of all circumstances, and life will become a joy where it has long been a pain; our very disqualifications in one direction may become qualifications in another. If you had been fit for more field work, you could not have read so much; if your health had been more robust, your spirit might have been coarser; through the feebleness or the restraint of the body you became acquainted with processes of chastening and limitation and refinement which have made you your noblest self. There is no lot that has not in it some point of light; if, indeed, we except men who have sinned away their day and are now in the wilderness of despair, still enough remains to justify the reassertion that in every human lot there are points of advantage. Let no man glory over another; God has set everyone in his place, and every man must accept the divine appointment. But this was Old Testament; we have supposedly outlived the venerable record. Is there anything to correspond with this order of the camps in the New Testament? Read 1 Corinthians 12:28-30 : "And God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?" This is the Old Testament translated into later language. So is this: "Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all... For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will." Paul, then, was but Moses evangelised; the God of both Testaments is the same. The great mischief Isaiah, that one man is so often expected to be all men. This is particularly so in the Church. Outside the Church we have some little tincture of common sense in these matters; but inside the Church we have another kind of sense. We thus declaim: The minister is an excellent visitor, but he is a very poor preacher. A marvellous thing it would have been, now, if the same man had been both a preacher and a visitor! Or we say: No doubt he is a very learned theologian, but he has no gift in the relation of anecdotes. A marvellous thing if he had been great in the theological metaphysics of the fathers, and profound in his knowledge of anecdotes that never transpired! Or: He is very solid, but not entertaining. Marvellous if he had been as solid as a Quarterly Review, and as great a liar as an evening newspaper! In the Old Testament and in the New Testament there was some regard to specialty of gift, to definiteness of position; having lost that regard we have lost power. You do not say, The clock is an excellent time-keeper, but no use at all as a musical instrument. You do not take up a trumpet and say, A finer instrument was never made to call men to feast or to battle, but it is utterly useless if you want it to tell you the time of day. Every man in his own place, in his sphere. The great question is not in what regiment we are, but rather, Are we in the army of Christ—whether with Judah first, with Reuben second, with Ephraim third, or with Dan the hindmost tribe? To be in the army is the great consideration. There are no inferior positions in the Church; there are no inferior clergy. There may be valleys; but the valleys are in the Alps—even the depressed places are on the high mountains; to be on those mountains At all is to be in an elevated position. We have the same regulation in the New Testament, as Paul has just proved. We need not have gone to Paul, for Paul was but an echo, not a voice; the Voice is Christ. The Son hath revealed the Father as a King who has gone into a far country, and before going divided to his servants, severally as he would, to one five talents, to another two, to another one, saying to each "Occupy till I come." So the Book of Numbers is but an earlier edition of the book by which Christian conduct is regulated and Christian education is completed. So the Bible has many writers, but only one Author. The hands that shaped its letters are many; the Spirit that revealed its truth is One.


The book of Numbers is rich in fragments of ancient poetry, some of them of great beauty, and all throwing interesting light on the character of the times in which they were composed. Such, for instance, is the blessing of the high-priest ( Numbers 6:24-26):—

In Numbers 21we have a passage cited from a book called "The Book of the Wars of Jehovah." This was probably a collection of ballads and songs composed on different occasions by the watch-fires of the camp, and for the most part, though not perhaps exclusively, in commemoration of the victories of the Israelites over their enemies. The title shows us that these were written by men imbued with a deep sense of religion, and who were therefore foremost to acknowledge that not their own prowess, but Jehovah"s Right Hand had given them the victory when they went forth to battle. Hence it was called, not "The Book of the Wars of Israel," but "The Book of the Wars of Jehovah." Possibly this is the book referred to in Exodus 17:14, especially as we read ( Exodus 5:16) that when Moses built the altar which he called Jehovah-Nissi (Jehovah is my banner), he exclaimed, "Jehovah will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." This expression may have given the name to the book.

Verse 2

"Handfuls of Purpose"

For All Gleaners

"Every man... shall pitch by his own standard!"Numbers 2:2

Order is necessary to success.—Men cannot be allowed to run from standard to standard.—Obedience to this precept would reconstruct the Christian army.—There is a natural fondness in the human heart in the matter of changing standards.—Such changing represents action without progress.—It is to be especially noticed that there is a standard for every man.—Individuality is the gift of God.—Individuality does not destroy the social bond; while contributing to its strength it adds much to its variety.—Denominationalism in the Church has its uses.—As no one standard is the army, so no one denomination is the Church.

There is a psychology of denominationalism.—Moral or intellectual constitution renders it impossible that all men should be content with the same ecclesiastical conditions.—Every temperament has its own standard.—No man should say that another is not in the army because he does not belong to some particular standard.—Loose-mindedness which supposes that it is a matter of indifference as to whether any special standard should be chosen is strongly discouraged by the spirit of this text.—Observe, every man is not called upon to direct the army.—Some men have simply to pitch by their standard, and wait for orders.—"Blessed is that servant who, when his Lord cometh, shall be found watching."—"Choose ye this day whom ye will serve."—Enemies of Christ are sometimes bolder in the avowal of their standard, than his friends.—Boldness in the faith when regulated by intelligence and chastened by patience is a sign of progress in the highest life.

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Bibliographical Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 2". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. 1885-95.