THE HALLOWING OF THE LEVITES (Numbers 8:5-23).
The Lord spake unto Moses. At some time subsequent to the command given in Numbers 3:6-13, and no doubt before the passover.
And cleanse them. Before they actually entered upon their new duties they were to be solemnly hallowed. This hallowing, however, is not called קַדֵּשׁ, as is that of the priests (Exodus 29:1 ), but טַהֵר, cleansing. There was in their case no ceremonial washing, no vesting in sacred garments, no anointing with holy oil, or sprinkling with the blood of sacrifices. The Levites, in fact, remained simply representatives of the congregation, whereas the priests were representatives also of Christ.
Sprinkle water of purifying upon them. Rather, "water of sin," so called because it had to do with the removal of sin, just as "water of separation" (Numbers 19:9, Numbers 19:13) was that which delivered from the legal state of separation. It is not likely to have been prepared in the same manner as this latter (Numbers 19:9), both because of the great difference between the two cases, and because the ordinance of the red heifer belonged to a later period. Nor is it likely to have resembled that used for cleansing the leper, or the water of jealousy. But it is rash to conclude that, because we do not read any special directions for its preparation, it must, therefore, have been nothing trot water from the laver which stood in the outer court. That water appears, indeed, to be called "holy water" in Numbers 5:17, which is intelligible enough; but no probable reason can be shown why it should be called "sin water;" it would seem as reasonable to call the water which our Lord turned into wine "sill water," because it stood there "for the purifying of the Jews." It is better to say that we do not know, because it is not recorded, how this water was prepared, or how it corresponded to its name. The Levites who were to be sprinkled would seem to have included all the males, some twenty thousand in number; because it was all the males, and not only those between thirty and fifty, who were to be dedicated in place of the first-born. In any case it was, of course, impossible that Moses could have sprinkled them individually (see below on Numbers 5:11). Let them shave all their flesh. Literally, "let them cause the razor to pass over their whole body." Some distinguish between עָבַר תּעַר here and גִלַּה in Le Numbers 14:8, Numbers 14:9, as though the latter meant a much more complete shaving off of the hair than the former; but this difference is doubtful; the fact that the whole body as well as the head was to be shaved implies that it was more than a mere cutting short of the hair. Let them wash their clothes. This was constantly enjoined on all the faithful as a preparation for any special religious service (see on Exodus 19:10). And so make themselves clean. The shaving and washing had, no doubt, a symbolic significance, but their primary object was simply and obviously personal cleanliness; it is the hair and the clothes that chiefly harbour impurities, especially in a hot climate.
Another young bullock shalt thou take for a sin offering. The ordinary sin offering was a shaggy one of the goats (see on Numbers 7:16); but a bullock had been prescribed for the sin of the high priest, and for the sin of the congregation, in certain circumstances, and the analogy is followed here. It might seem as if the larger animal were meant to distinguish aggregate or collective guilt (see on Le Numbers 4:3); but the scapegoat offered for the sin of the whole people makes against such a supposition.
Before the Lord. As in Numbers 5:16, either near the brazen altar, or more probably before the entrance of the tabernacle. And the children of Israel shall put their hands upon the Levites. Presumably by means of their representatives, probably the tribe princes. This laying on of hands signified that the obligation to assist personally in the service of the sanctuary was transferred from the whole congregation to the Levites.
And Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord for an offering. Rather, "Aaron shall wave" them "for a wave offering" (Hebrew, nuph; see Exodus 29:24); and so in Numbers 8:13, Numbers 8:15, and Numbers 8:21. This injunction seems conclusive that the whole ceremonial was to be symbolically per. formed, for the Levites could not possibly be waved in any literal sense. Some have supposed that they were marched up and down before the altar, forgetting that the court would scarcely afford standing room for 1000 people, while the Levites between thirty and fifty numbered more than 8000. It is certain that the Levites could only be brought before the Lord, could only be waved (howsoever that was done), could only lay their hands upon the bullocks, by representation. If we suppose, e.g; that a hundred men of position and command among them entered the court as representatives of the tribe, then we can understand how the ceremonial here commanded might have been effectively carried out. That they may execute the service of the Lord. Literally, "that they may be to execute the service of the Lord." Their being waved made them over in a figure to the Lord to be wholly his, and to live only for his service, and at his command. But just as wave offerings were assigned by Divine permission to the use of the priests, so were the Levites given to Aaron and his sons for ever.
Shall lay their hands upon the beads of the bullocks. In token that they constituted these victims the ritual representatives and embodiments, the one of their sin, to be consumed and done away as by fire, the other of their life and strength, to be wholly offered unto God and accepted as by fire.
And thou shalt set the Levites before Aaron. This is not an additional command, but repeats in a slightly different form the previous orders. A similar repetition occurs in Numbers 8:15 b.
For they are wholly given unto me. See Numbers 3:5-13, the substance of which is emphatically repeated here.
To make an atonement for the children of Israel. This is a remarkable expression, and throws light upon the nature of atonement. It is usually confined to purely sacerdotal ministrations, but it clearly has a somewhat different scope here. The idea that the Levites "made an atonement" by assisting the priests in the subordinate details of sacrifice hardly needs refutation: as well might the Gibeonites be said to "make an atonement" because they supplied the altar fire with wood. The real parallel to this is to be found in the case of Phinehas, of whom God testified that "he hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel," and "made an atonement for the children of Israel" (Numbers 25:11, Numbers 25:13). It is evident that Phinehas turned away the wrath of God not by offering any sacrifices, but by making the sin which aroused that wrath to cease: he made an atonement for the people by discharging for them that holy and bounden duty (of putting away sin) which the rest of them failed to perform. Similarly the Levites made an atonement not by offering sacrifice (which they could no more do than the children of Judah), but by rendering unto God those personal duties of attendance and service in his courts which all the people ought to have rendered had they only been fit. That there be no plague among the children of Israel, when the children of Israel come nigh unto the sanctuary. See Numbers 1:53. The children of Israel were in this strait. As "an holy nation," they were all bound, and their first-born as redeemed from the destroyer were specially bound, to render certain religious duties to God. But if they had attempted to render them they would have erred through ignorance and foolishness, and so have incurred Divine wrath and punishment, when they came nigh unto the sanctuary. From this strait the substitution of the Levites delivered them.
Were purified, or "purified themselves." It refers not to the ceremonial sprinkling, but to the personal preparation prescribed.
In the tabernacle of the congregation. This can only mean that they went in after the holy things had been packed up in order to take the fabric to pieces; no one but the priests went into the tabernacle for any other purpose, or at any other time.
From twenty and five years old and upward. A short time before the minimum age had been fixed at thirty (Numbers 4:3). That direction, however, concerned the transport of the tabernacle and its belongings; this was a permanent regulation designed for the ordinary labours of the sanctuary at a time when the Levites would be scattered throughout their cities, and could only serve by courses. For the latter purpose many more would be required; and indeed they were found insufficient as it was in the latter days of David, when the wealth and devotion of the kingdom were fast increasing (see on 1 Chronicles 23:24-27). To wait upon the service. Literally, "to war the warfare;" the idea of the militia sacra is kept up.
Shall minister … to keep the charge, and shall do no service. The word "charge" (Hebrew, mishmereth) seems to signify the care of the furniture and belongings of the tabernacle, while "service" means the laborious work of transport, or of preparing sacrifice. The duties of the Levite over fifty were in fact honorary, given to him probably for his own sake, that he might have some place and post in the house of God. This careful provision for those who should attain the age of fifty shows that the commandment was designed for the promised land rather than for the wilderness.
THE DEDICATION OF THE LEVITES
In this section we have the due preparation of those who are specially devoted to the service of God. Consider, therefore—
I. THAT BEFORE THEY COULD SERVE THEY MUST BE CLEANSED. Even so all that would do God service, or be useful to others in religions concerns, must first themselves be cleansed; because all that is human is unclean (Job 15:14), and nothing that is unclean can do God service, for he requireth holiness in his servants (Proverbs 20:9; Psalms 5:5; Isaiah 52:11; Habakkuk 1:13; Matthew 5:48; Matthew 22:12).
II. THAT THIS CLEANSING WAS TWOFOLD, PARTLY WROUGHT UPON THEM, PARTLY WROUGHT BY THEM. Even so the cleansing which prepares for the service of God, and for his nearer presence, is twofold; partly it is done for us by the Mediator, partly by us through our own efforts (Psalms 51:7; 2 Corinthians 7:1).
III. THAT THE CLEANSING A PARTE DEI WAS BY SPRINKLING OF SIN WATER, THE EXACT NATURE OF WHICH IS DISPUTED. Even so every one that would belong to the kingdom of God must receive that washing of water and of the Holy Spirit, which is in its nature mysterious, and in definition controverted (Ezekiel 36:25; John 3:5; Acts 22:16; Hebrews 10:22).
IV. THAT THE CLEANSING A PARTE SUA WAS BY SEDULOUSLY GETTING RID OF ANY POSSIBLE IMPURITY WHICH MIGHT ADHERE FROM WITHOUT. Even so he who would truly serve God must be not only careful, but conscious, and according to the ordinary standard extreme, to detach and remove from himself all those impurities of common life which so easily cling to us; to reform those private, social, and domestic habits, which sit as closely to us as our clothes, which seem as much a part of us as our hair, and which, as it were, absorb and retain the inherent sinfulness of our nature (1 John 3:3; 2 Peter 3:14; James 1:21; James 4:8).
V. THAT FOR THE LEVITES WERE OFFERED FIRST A SIN OFFERING, AND A BURNT OFFERING, FOR AN ATONEMENT. Even so no service, however able and laborious, is acceptable unto God except it have been sanctified through the sacrifice and self-sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:10).
VI. THAT THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL LAID THEIR HANDS UPON THE LEVITES WHEN THEY WERE DEVOTED. Even so whatever labour be undertaken for the body of Christ, should receive recognition and sympathy from all members of the body, for all are concerned (1 Corinthians 16:15, 1 Corinthians 16:16; Acts 13:3; Acts 14:26; 1 Corinthians 12:26).
VII. THAT THE LEVITES WERE "WAVED." Even so all who would labour in holy things must present themselves as a living sacrifice to God, to be wholly his and no longer suce potestatis. Those who do religious work, because they like it themselves, "have their reward;" but where the Pharisees had it, in this world only (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 6:20; Galatians 2:20).
VIII. THAT ONLY AFTER THEIR CLEANSING AND WAVING COULD THEY ENTER IN TO WAR THE WARFARE OF THE TABERNACLE. Even so, none can do real service to God unless they are wholly converted and have given themselves to him (Luke 22:32 b; Acts 8:21; James 1:8; and cf. 7:4, 7:7).
IX. THAT AFTER THE FIFTIETH YEAR THEY WERE RELEASED FROM DOING SERVICE, BUT WERE STILL PERMITTED TO KEEP THE CHARGE. Even so it is part of the goodness of God that no one should be held to do laborious work in the Church when he is old; but also part of his goodness that he should still keep such charge as is fitted to his years.
Note, that the Levites are said to have made an atonement for the children of Israel.—
1. By taking upon themselves, in their separated but representative character, those religious obligations of the congregation (especially of the first-born) which they dared not attempt.
2. By performing such obligations rightly, which those could not have done. There is none of us that can do this, because we cannot even do our own duty, far less another's (Psalms 49:7; Luke 17:10; Galatians 6:5) Wherefore this applies only unto Christ, by whom we have received the atonement (Romans 5:11), and throws an important light upon that atonement.
1. Christ hath "made atonement" for us, as having undertaken for us those duties of a human life and ministry wholly and perfectly devoted and consecrated to the Father, which we for our unworthiness durst not even have attempted (Luke 2:49; John 4:34; John 6:38; Hebrews 10:5-9; Hebrews 9:14).
2. Christ hath "made atonement" for us, as having lived that perfect life, and rendered that perfect ministry, which we never could have lived or rendered, and therefore never could have pleased God, nor satisfied his just and necessary requirements (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 12:18; Matthew 17:5; John 17:4; John 19:30; James 3:2).
3. Christ hath "made atonement" for us, as having thus pleased God, as man, and as our separated and accepted representative, "the Son of man"—"the second man."
4. Christ hath saved us thereby from the sorrow which even in heaven itself (could we have got there) our want of will and want of power to serve God acceptably would have brought upon us (Ephesians 1:6), having appeared in our behalf in the presence of God with the offering of a perfect human life.
HOMILIES BY W. BINNIE
THE SEPARATION OF THE LEVITES OR AN ORDINATION SERVICE IN THE WILDERNESS
"Thus shalt thou separate the Levites from among the children of Israel: and the Levites shall be mine." There was a threefold reason why the Levites were separated from the rest of the nation and wholly dedicated to the Lord's service. In the first place, they were to stand instead of the first-born, whom the Lord had specially claimed for himself (Numbers 8:16-18). It was judged expedient that to the service of the sanctuary one whole tribe should be dedicated, rather than individuals out of all the tribes. Secondly, the due serving of the tabernacle being much too burdensome for the single family of Aaron, their brethren of the tribe of Levi were appointed to help them. But there was a third and deeper reason. All the chosen people are the Lord's, and he claims their service. But all cannot, in person, serve him in the way of keeping the charge of the sanctuary. Some of them must be separated to this ministry. Official service is necessary under the gospel. Much more was it necessary under the law. Hence the separation of the Levites. When the time came for the Levites to enter on duty, they were set apart in a service, not so solemn indeed as the service on the occasion of Aaron's consecration, nevertheless highly impressive, and fitted to suggest many a lesson worthy to be laid to heart by us on similar occasions.
I. Let us begin by taking A GENERAL VIEW OF THIS ORDINATION SERVICE. The outstanding features were these. It took place at the door of the tabernacle and in presence of the whole congregation. The Levites being marched in, the congregation put their hands on them, q.d.: "We are thine, O Lord. Thou hast redeemed us and brought us out for thyself, to be to thee a kingdom and priests. With respect to the charge of this thy sanctuary, thou hast made choice of these our brethren to minister to thee in our stead. We freely give them up to thee, and renounce all the rightful claim we should otherwise have had upon their service in peace and war." This done, Aaron "offered" the Levites to the Lord as a "wave offering." Finally, Aaron in turn accepted the Levites as the Lord's gift to him, to aid him in the tabernacle. Who can fail to see the significance of all this? Besides suggesting
II. BESIDES THESE MORE CATHOLIC AND SPIRITUAL SERVICES, THE LEVITES' ORDINATION WAS ACCOMPANIED WITH OTHERS PURELY CEREMONIAL. These were of three kinds.
1. Lustral (Numbers 8:7). First, Aaron sprinkled the Levites with water of purifying—either that described Numbers 19:1-22, or, more likely, spring-water, such as was used in the laver. Then the Levites, on their part, shaved off their hair and washed their clothes, q.d.: "Lord, we are not meet for thy house and service. Holiness becometh thine house. Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil. And we are unclean. But thou canst make us clean. As thou hast sprinkled our persons with clean water, so do thou remove all filthiness from our hearts. And we, for our parts, are resolved by thy grace to put away the evils of our past lives and to follow after holiness henceforward."
2. Expiatory (Numbers 19:8, Numbers 19:12). The Levites were to bring a sin offering for atonement; laying their hands upon it with confession of sin (see Leviticus 4:1-35). They were thus reminded of their guilt as well as impurity, and were encouraged to believe that there is forgiveness with God, on the ground of which they might hope to be accepted in their persons and service.
3. Dedicatory. The sin offering was to be followed by a burnt offering to signify that the Levites presented their whole persons to the Lord, a living sacrifice, to be employed in his service all their days. Blessed be God, we are rid of these burdensome and carnal rites. Care must be taken not to let anything like them creep again into the sanctuary. But the ideas they set forth—the great realities of purification, and pardon, and dedication—ought to be often present to our minds and hearts in the house of God.—B.
HOMILIES BY E.S. PROUT
Numbers 8:12, and Numbers 8:19
AN OFFERING TO GOD, NEEDING FOR ITSELF AN ATONEMENT
The tribe of Levi was set apart for God's service in the tabernacle in place of all the firstborn. Before they could enter on that service they needed a special call and consecration, including atoning sacrifices (Numbers 8:5-12). Thus we are reminded of the obvious truth that, without a sacrifice for us, we can never ourselves be acceptable sacrifices to God. Illustrate from the position of Romans 12:1-21. I in the Epistle, coming after the exposition of the mercies of God, including the atonement of Christ (Romans 3:1-31). But in Romans 12:19 the services of the Levites (or the Levites themselves) are said to be an atonement. The Levites were regarded as a vicarious offering to God (Romans 12:10, Romans 12:11). In the wider sense of the word atonement, they are said to make (or to be) an atonement. ("The priests made an atonement by sacrifice; the Levites by attendance."—M. Henry.) Yet even this vicarious offering needs to be atoned for (Romans 12:12). Hence the lesson, that every human saint (separated to God, Romans 12:14), service, or sacrifice needs an atonement. This is needed for—
1. All God's chosen servants, "a kind of first-fruits of his creatures." (Illustrate from 1 John 1:7-10; 1 John 2:1, 1 John 2:2, and from John 13:10.)
2. All God's selected ministers (pastors, missionaries, etc.). Illustrate from Tertullian's request to his brethren: "Ye have sought, and ye have found; ye have knocked, and it is opened to you. Thus much I ask, that when you seek again, you remember me, Tertullian, a sinner;" or from W. Carey the missionary's selected epitaph—
‘‘A guilty, weak, and helpless worm,
On thy kind arms I fall."
3. All the most sacred services of the most saintly men. Their prayers need to be prayed for; their tears to be washed from impurity; their gifts of gold to be refined from the dross of earthly motives. Though all Christians are priests unto God, their most solemn priestly acts need the blood of Christ to cleanse them from all sin.—P.