Dr. Ligon Duncan
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with
me to Numbers 2. Thank you. It’s not quite as long a passage as last week, but
it’s a fairly long passage.
Last week we were in Numbers 1, which gave us the
numbering of the tribes; now in Numbers 2, we come to the arranging of the
tribes. And we’ve said as we have come to the book of Numbers that this book,
though it is filled with history that is unfamiliar to some, history that is
suspected to be boring by others…we’ve said that Moses tells the stories of
the history of God’s people in such a way in this book that these stories are
electric, and they are filled with wisdom and with Christ for us.
We also said that even in the instructions, though
they may seem to be obscure and arcane, even the instructions we’ll receive
tonight from the lips of Moses in Numbers 2, yet in these instructions there is
thunder and lightning, because the Apostle Paul tells us in I Corinthians 10
that the events of this book happened, and this book was written, for
Christians. It’s vitally important for us to understand this. This is not just
an interesting obscure book of Old Testament history written for history nerds
like me. This is a book, the events of which happened for you, and the events of
which were written by Moses under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for you.
That’s not a deduction; that’s not an implication of what he says; that is
explicitly what he says in I Corinthians 10. This book’s for you. That’s what he
And it’s a book about sanctification. It’s a book
about the Christian life. It’s a book set in the wilderness. This book is about
the people of God in the wilderness walking with God and growing in grace, and I
can’t think of a more timely topic for believers in this world of ours–this
weary world of ours, this fallen world of ours, this sinful world of ours, this
heartbreaking world of ours.
This book gives you a full “warts biography” of the
people in the wilderness. They do not come out looking good! But isn’t that
exactly the kind of book that we need? Because if our hearts were opened and our
lives were read in public, we wouldn’t come out looking good either. And the
Apostle Paul tells us that we’re to learn from them, and so that’s what we’re
going to do.
Now tonight there are six things that I want us
to learn out of Numbers 2. As you look at this chapter on the outline…and
I’m not going to cover any of the introductory ground that I’ve given you on the
outline. There’s really no outline for what we’re going to do tonight. That’s
why I’m giving you these six points up front. What I have provided you is what
the arrangement looks like. On the bottom of the outline you have the summary of
where we’ve come so far, and you have a picture, a diagram of how this
organization would have looked. If you were looking from above, what would this
organization that you’re going to hear read have looked like? And as we think
about this organization, I want you to think and look for six particular things.
Ask yourself first of all, “What is this
organization supposed to be? What are the people of God supposed to look
like from the organization that is commanded in Numbers 2?”
Secondly, ask yourself the question, “Who is at
the center of the people of God in this organization?”
Thirdly, ask the question, “What is God living in
while the people of God live in tents, going through the wilderness?”
Fourthly, ask yourself the question: “The outer
tribes…how far are they and what is in between them and the Ark of the
Covenant in the middle of the formation? How far are they from and what is
in between them and the Ark of the Covenant in the middle of the formation, and
what does that teach us about God?”
Fifthly, I want you to notice that there is a
specific commandment for the placement of everyone in Israel in this diagram,
and I want you to ask yourself what that teaches you about our appointed place
in the people of God.
And then, sixthly, I want us to remember that
this formation is a formation that you are going to see with your own eyes by
Those are our six points tonight. Let’s look to God
in prayer before we read His word.
Lord, this is Your word. We could be seriously
fooled into thinking that this is a trivial record of an obscure and irrelevant
ordering of a people that lived and died a long time ago, and that it doesn’t
have anything to say to us. Or, we could remember that Your word is living and
active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and that it is given by
inspiration, and it is profitable for teaching, for reproof and correction and
training in righteousness; and we can remember that You, by Your servant the
Apostle Paul, have told us that this book was written for us. Lord, help us to
hear this word in the light of that truth, and then by Your Spirit apply it to
our own hearts and lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
This is the word of God:
“Now the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘The sons of
Israel shall camp, each by his own standard, with the banners of their fathers’
households; they shall camp around the tent of meeting at a distance.
“‘Now those who camp on the east side toward the sunrise shall be of
the standard of the camp of Judah, by their armies, and the leader of the sons
of Judah: Nashon the son of Amminadab, and his army, even their numbered men,
And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Issachar, and the leader of
the sons of Issachar: Nethanel the son of Zuar, and his army, even their
numbered men, 54,400.
Then comes the tribe of Zebulun, and the leader of the sons of Zebulun: Eliab
the son of Helon, and his army, even their numbered men, 57,400.
The total of the numbered men of the camp of Judah: 186,400, by their armies.
They shall set out first.
“‘On the south side shall be the standard of the camp of Reuben by
their armies, and the leader of the sons of Reuben: Elizur the son of Shedeur,
and his army, even their numbered men, 46,500.
And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Simeon, and the leader of
the sons of Simeon: Shelumiel, the son of Zurishaddai, and his army, even their
numbered men, 59,300.
Then comes the tribe of Gad, and the leader of the sons of Gad: Eliasaph the son
[Some manuscripts say Rhuel,
so you may have, depending on which Bible translation you’re reading from, you
may have a different name there.]
“… ‘and his army, even their numbered men, 45,650.
The total of the numbered men of the camp of Reuben: 151,450 by their armies.
And they shall set out second.
“ ‘Then the tent of meeting shall set out with the camp of the
Levites in the midst of the camps; just as they camp, so they shall set out,
every man in his place, by their standards.
“ ‘On the west side shall be the standard of the camp of Ephraim by
their armies, and the leader of the camp of Ephraim shall be Elishama the son of
Ammihud, and his army, even their numbered men, 40,500.
And next to him shall be the tribe of Manasseh, and the leader of the sons of
Manasseh: Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur, and his army, even their numbered men,
Then comes the tribe of Benjamin, and the leader of the sons of Benjamin: Abidan
the son of Gideoni, and his army, even their numbered men, 35,400.
The total of the numbered men of the camp of Ephraim: 108,100, by their armies.
And they shall set out third.
“‘On the north side shall be the standard of the camp of Dan by
their armies, and the leader of the sons of Dan: Ahiezer the son of Ammishaddai,
and his army, even their numbered men, 62,700.
And those who camp next to him shall be the tribe of Asher, and the leader of
the sons of Asher: Pagiel the son of Ochran, and his army, even their numbered
Then comes the tribe of Naphtali, and the leader of the sons of Naphtali: Ahira
the son of Enan, and his army, even their numbered men, 53,400.
The total of the numbered men of the camp of Dan, was 157,600. They shall set
out last by their standards.”
“These are the numbered men of the sons of Israel by their fathers’
households; the total of the numbered men of the camps by their armies, 603,550.
The Levites, however, were not numbered among the sons of Israel, just as the
Lord had commanded Moses. Thus the sons of Israel did; according to all that the
Lord commanded Moses, so they camped by their standards, and so they set out,
every one by his family, according to his father’s household.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Six things I want you to see tonight from this
great passage, and the first thing is simply this:
I. How are the tribes arranged?
They are arranged like an army marching into
battle. That is not simply symbolic: it’s literal, in this case. This is an
army being prepared for battle. But the point that we need to understand is that
God’s people are an army assembled for war in this world. Now before we
give any qualification to that, especially in the context of our own day and
time in which another major world religion expresses its view of its believers
and followers lives in this world in terms of jihad, let’s consider why
and where we learn this truth from in this passage.
Notice first of all, repeatedly — repeatedly — the
phrase “…by their armies” or, in some of your translations, “…by their
companies” or, in some of your translations, “…by their hosts” is repeated.
All of those are military terms. They are repeated deliberately in the passage
because Moses wants you to get a picture of the people of God organized as an
army marching towards the promised land. They will literally be subject to
attack and ambush in the wilderness by their enemies. There’s a reason, for
instance, that the tribe of Dan is off to the left and leaves last in the
marching order, because we’re told that they were particularly good warriors.
Now, if you wanted to protect a vulnerable army from surprise attack from the
rear or the flank, where would you want to have some good warriors? But Moses
wants you to understand that this is a fighting formation, and there is a
message in that for us.
Yes, it’s a message which we saw in the Book of
Exodus, and it’s a message we’re going to see repeatedly here, and it’s a
message we talked about last week when the people of God were numbered as a
muster. It’s simply this: that the Christian life is a life of warfare,
and we are called into the Lord’s army. That’s not just a cute song that
the children sing when they’re three. That’s real. And one of the greatest
problems in the Christian life is that we don’t believe that it’s real…or at
least, we don’t act like it.
We want the Christian life to be more like a
cruise…a vacation…a holiday. And here’s God at the very outset of the word
reminding us that He hasn’t invited you along on a cruise. He’s invited you to
Now I need to say very quickly that this war is
utterly unlike the jihad that has been propagated not simply by the
extremists who are the followers of Islam, but by the prophet of Islam,
and by the Koran, which is the foundation of Islam, and has been held to for
over thirteen centuries by Muslims. This warfare that we’re called to is not our
conquest to make the world subservient to us. This warfare is a warfare against
the world, the flesh, and the devil, and it is a conspiracy for us in which we
seek to bless the world, to serve the world for God’s sake, to see the world
enjoy the favors and the blessings that God has bestowed on us. And so this
aggression to which we are called is not self-serving and it does not do harm to
our fellow human beings created in the image of God. No, it is designed to do
them everlasting good. There is absolutely no point of comparison between the
view of life as warfare between Christianity and Islam. They are 180 degrees
opposite. But we must never forget the Christian life is war.
II. Secondly, who is in the
center of this formation?
Well, we could ask the question first, “What
is in the center of this formation?” The tent of meeting. And what is in the
tent of meeting? The ark of the covenant. And what is the ark of the covenant?
It is the visible, tangible, symbolic manifestation of the nearness, the
presence of God with His people. So who is in the middle of this formation? God.
God Himself, Moses is reminding us, is at the center of our life, of our
mission, of our purpose in this world. God the King is in the very center of
We know how Ramses II in the thirteenth century
ordered his armies when he went out to battle, which I would estimate would have
been about a hundred years after this is happening. And do you know how he
ordered his armies? Just like this. In other words, Moses is giving them a
battle formation that they would have recognized. The children of Israel would
have seen this battle formation, and guess where Ramses’ tent was in his battle
formation? Right smack dab in the middle. The king was in the middle. And when
the tent of meeting went in the middle, the people of God understood the lesson.
The King is in the middle. God is right in the center of this. You see it in the
diagram of formation right before you. The message is unmistakable: God is at
the heart of this; God is at the center of this. God is the one who gives kingly
leadership. God is the one who is the center of our life, and our mission, and
our purpose in this world; and when we live otherwise as Christians, things
always go awry.
III. Thirdly, what is God
living in, in the middle of the formation?
Yes, it’s a tabernacle. Yes, it’s nice! No, it’s
more than nice–it’s gorgeous! It’s lavish, it’s expensive…but it could have
fit in this room. You understand that. The tabernacle would have fit in this
room. The God who flung the galaxies into space by the word of His power was
living in a tent while His people went through the wilderness in a tent.
One of our elders prayed tonight about the glorious
truth of the omnipresence of God: God is everywhere. But this passage is
reminding you that in a special way God is exceedingly near to His people.
You know, God makes this point to David in II
Samuel. You remember when David has just moved into his new palace in Jerusalem.
He looks out his window, and out of the window of his palace, what does he see?
He sees a tent. This tent. And he knows that it’s wrong for him, the mere human
king of Israel, to be living in a palace while God’s ark of the covenant is in a
tent. And so he says to his dear, dear friend, Nathan the prophet, ‘Nathan, it’s
wrong for me to live in a palace while God’s ark of the covenant is in a tent. I
want to build God a palace. I want to build Him a house. I want to build Him a
temple.’ And God comes to Nathan that night and says ‘Nathan, I want you to tell
David something.’ Do you remember what He says to him? He says ‘David, when My
people were wandering through the wilderness in tents, I lived in a tent with
them. Where in all of those years did I ever ask them to build me a palace?’ So
you don’t have to wait until the New Testament until God draws near to His
people. God’s whole point to David was ‘When My people were in the wilderness in
tents, I was there in a tent with them’ because that’s the kind of God I am. I
don’t ask My people to do what I am not prepared to do with them Myself.’
And that is a truth which we can ill afford to
forget in this life: that when that diagnosis comes in and you are tempted to
say “Where is God?” the answer comes, Christian, ‘I’m right next to you.’ In
fact, the new covenant answer to that is ‘You’re the temple of the Holy Spirit.
I dwell in you. Where am I? You don’t have to ask the question. I dwell in your
midst. I’m not somewhere off in the distance. I’m right there with you. I don’t
have to read a book about your sufferings. I’m right there with you. I don’t
need to be explained to second-hand what human suffering entails. I’m right
there with you.’
God lives in a tent with His people as they wander
in the wilderness in their tents; God in the gospel is near to His people.
IV. Where are the tribes.
Now, one thing we do need to recognize is that in
these formations the outer tribes are some distance from that tent of meeting,
and there are people in between them and the tent of meeting. In fact, the
outer tribes are probably 1,000 yards from the tent of meeting. Ten football
fields! And then there are the priests and the Levites ringed around them.
Now don’t we learn something there about holding God
in reverence and awe and not approaching Him except through a mediator? No one
came into that tent except representatively through the priests and the Levites.
There was a mediator needed. And you see, my friends, that’s the beauty of when
we come to the Lord’s Table. You’ll see no Levite standing in front of that
table saying ‘Uh-uh-uh…. Only through me.’ No, you see Christ displayed in the
symbols of His body and blood shed for you with His arms open wide, saying
‘Come. Eat at My table.’ And the minister behind, not in front; not in between,
but simply behind, serving the people of God, because you have been given that
glorious access. Isn’t that what John 1 is all about? The Lord Jesus Christ
Himself has come and tabernacled among us in our flesh, and He’s drawn near. At
the end of the Gospel of John, Thomas is invited to thrust his fingers into the
hands and side of Christ. That’s how near God’s people can get to Him in Christ.
Yes, God is to be held in respect, in reverence and
awe, but in the new covenant we have such privileges that we are able to draw
nearer–much nearer–to our blessed Lord in Jesus Christ.
V. God has appointed the place
of every one of us in His people and family and body.
The arrangement of the tribes suggests a precedence
and a divine decision regarding their various functions and abilities. Even
reading it quickly tonight, you couldn’t have missed that Judah is in the
vanguard. Where else would we expect the tribe of the Lion of Judah to be, but
in the vanguard?
But isn’t this whole passage a pre-reminder of the
Apostle Paul’s teaching about the body, in Romans and in I Corinthians? That
there is a place for every one of us. We don’t have the same job, we don’t have
the same precedence, we don’t have the same gifting, we don’t have the same
abilities, but there is a place for every single one of us.
I wish I had time–maybe I will next week–to read you
a quote from William Phillip about this very truth.
VI. The New Jerusalem
One last thing: You will see this formation again
with your own eyes. Turn with me in your Bibles to the Book of Revelation.
When John describes the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven in Revelation
21:10ff, do you notice how he describes it? What is the formation? There’s
“…A great high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates, twelve angels; the
names were written on them, which were the names of the twelve tribes of the
sons of Israel. There were three…on the east, …three…on the north,
…three…on the south, …three…on the west. The wall of the city has twelve
foundation stones, and on them are written the twelve names of the twelve
apostles of the Lamb.”
And then there was a measurement taken. And how is the city
laid out? As a square.
“…Its length as great as its width; and he measured the city with the rod,
fifteen hundred miles; its length and width and height are equal.”
But then John notices something really strange about this
city. It’s like no Jerusalem that John has ever seen before, because in verse 22
“And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb, are
You’re going to see the formation again, friends,
but this time no tent to hide the glory of the Lord; no temple to hide the glory
of the Lord; no Holy of Holies to hide the glory of the Lord. The Lord Almighty
and the Lamb will be in our midst, and we will see them with all their glory.
And then you will know that the battle is done.
Lord God, weary soldiers in the wilderness need
to remember that there will be a time when the army will never need to move
again, and we will behold the Captain of our salvation; and we will say “It is
good.” In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let’s sing The Doxology. [Congregation
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make
His face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up His
countenance upon you, and give you peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the web page. No
attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery
style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript
conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the
reader should presume any error to be with the transcriber/editor rather than
with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permissions
information, please visit the
FPC Website, Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.
To view recordings of our entire services, visit our Facebook page.