The Census of Israel
Delivered on Lord's-day Morning, April 5th, 1891, by
C. H. SPURGEON,
At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington
"These are they that were numbered by Moses and Eleazar the priest, who numbered the children of Israel in the plains of Moab by Jordan near Jericho. But among these there was not a man of them whom Moses and Aaron the priest numbered, when they numbered the children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai. For the Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the wilderness. And there was not left a man of them, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun."Numbers 26:63-65.
E HAVE COME to another census, an important halting-place in the march of a nation's history. This carries our thoughts back to the ancient Bible story connected with the chosen people of God. A census was taken of the tribes of Israel in the wilderness two years after they had left Egypt. It only numbered males who were over twenty: the men capable of active service in war. By thus taking a census of his people, the Lord showed that he valued each one of them. They were registered by their families and by their names; thus were they personally enrolled in the family book of the living God, and he thus, in effect, said to each one of them, "I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine." By the registration of each man by name, he felt that he was not lost in the crowd; but was by person and pedigree owned as one of those to whom the Lord had promised the land which flowed with milk and honey. There was good reason for taking the number of the people just as the nation was forming, so that in the wilderness they might be arranged, and marshalled, and disciplined for the conflict which lay before them. When commanded of God, because he saw that great ends would be served thereby, and when associated with redemption, a census was by no means a wrong or a dangerous national arrangement. David ordered the people to be numbered, and because his motive and his method were wrong, it brought a pestilence on the land; but, in itself, the taking of a census was a wise and useful thing.
An angel's arm can't snatch me from the grave
Legions of angels can't confine me there."
To create and to destroy are sole prerogatives of the King of kings. Till he speaks the word, we live not; or living, we die not. Walking in the midst of ten thousand stricken with the plague, we are safe till God appoints our removal. Concerning those that are asleep, we know that they have not died without the will of our Father: concerning our time also, we know that we shall not be the toys of chance, or the victims of fate. A wise and loving God fixes the date and place of our decease; for "precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." Stern though the work may be, his great and tender heart rules the ravages of death. Let us therefore be comforted concerning the great changes which death is working. Here is no cause for tears, as though we were left in a monster's power, and bereft of a Father's care. The Lord is still ruling, and nothing happens save as he appoints.
Moreover, the change was beneficial. It was well that the first generation should die in the wilderness. The people who had been accustomed to servitude in Egypt had acquired the vices of slaves; and when they came out of the house of bondage they were fearful, fickle, the creatures of appetite, and the victims of panic, selfishness, and discontent. They had all the vices of subject races, and were alike destitute of manliness and self-control. They were soon cowed by fear and baffled by difficulty. They were easily persuaded, and as easily dissuaded. They were a people of whom nothing could be made. Even the divine tuition in which Moses and Aaron were engaged, and in which miracles, and types, and laws were employed, could not teach them anything so that they really knew it. To make a nation which could preserve the worship of the one God in the world, the generation which came out of Egypt must die out. The taint of slavery and idolatry must be lessened if it could not be quite removed. It was desirable that there should be a people trained in a better school, with a nobler spirit, fit to take possession of the promised land. The change was working rightly: the divine purpose was being fulfilled. May be, we do not think thus of the changes which are taking place in the communities to which we belong. We scarcely think that better men are coming on; we even fear that the coming race is weaker than the present: but then, we are not fair judges; for we are prejudiced in favor of our own generation. I do not doubt that God meaneth well to his own church, and that the accomplishment of his eternal purposes requires that men should come and go, and that thus the face of society should be changed. It is well that the age of man is not so protracted as in the days of Methuselah. A teacher influential for error dies and is forgotten; a sinner pestilential for vice passes away, and the air grows pure. Imagine a gambler with five hundred years of craft to guide him, or a libertine reeking with six hundred years of debauchery! Surely the present narrowed limits of human life are all too wide for the depraved! We need not wish for giants of iniquity such as centuries of life would produce. The incoming of new blood into the social frame is good in a thousand ways: it is well that we should make room for others who may serve our Master better. God grant they may! Our prayer is, "Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children." We are content to take the work if our sons may behold the glory: we are glad to move off that they may rise on stepping stones of our ended lives to nobler things.
One other remark I cannot help making, and that is, that these changes are most instructive. If we are now serving God, let us do so with intense earnestness, since only for a little while shall we have the opportunity to do so among men. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." Live while you live. At the same time, lay plans for influencing the rising generation. Lay yourself out to work while it is called to-day. If anything should be done, it were well that it were done quickly. If we wish truth to conquer, and the gospel to prevail, let us fight the Lord's battles now; and if we would see truth prevail after we are gone, let us seek out faithful young men, who will teach others also, that the testimony for the Lord God of Israel die not out of the land. We must soon quit the field. Let each man set his house in order, for he must soon leave it to be gazed upon by strangers' eyes. Let us see that our life-work is rounded off and well-finished, so that in the survey of it by our successors they may say of us, "He being dead yet speaketh." As we must soon be gone from among the living, let us bless them while we may. Arise, ye saints, and bestir yourselves; for the day is far spent, and the shadows of evening are falling. I pray that we may learn well this first lesson of our text. O Spirit of life, teach us life even by the doings of death!
II. Secondly, we have here before us THE PERPETUITY OF THE PEOPLE OF GOD. There was a change in the constituent elements of the Israelitish nation, but the nation was still there. Not one man was there who was counted thirty-eight years before, save Caleb and Joshua, and yet the nation was the same. Do you ask for Israel? There it is. Balaam can see the people from the top of the hill, and they are the same people whom Pharaoh pursued to the Red Sea. The nation is living, though a nation has died. It is the same chosen seed of Abraham with whom Jehovah is in covenant. God has a church in the world, and he will have a church in the world till time shall be no more. The gates of hell and the jaws of death shall not prevail against the church, though each one of its members must depart out of this world in his turn.
Mark well, that "the church in the wilderness" lives on. There are the same twelve tribes, the same standards heading the tribes, the same tabernacle in the midst of the host, and the same priesthood celebrating sacred service with solemn pomp. Everything has changed and yet nothing has altered. God has built his holy habitation upon foundations which can never be removed. Although the men who bear the ark of the covenant of the Lord wear other names, yet they fulfill the same office. The music of the sanctuary rises and falls, but the strain goes on. The hallelujah never ceases, nor is there a pause in the perpetual chorus, "His mercy endureth for ever."
The gaps were filled up by appointed successors. As one warrior died another man stepped into his place, even as one wave dying on the shore is pursued by another. The men were not all swept away at once, but by perceptible degrees. Now and then there came an awful and sudden destruction, as when Korah, Dathan, and Abiram went down alive into the pit; but, as a rule, the people dropped off gradually, as ripe fruit falls from the trees, and they were succeeded by others as the fading leaves of autumn have the buds of spring just beneath them. In the church of God one dieth in the order of nature, but another is born into the kingdom by the power of grace. We miss some useful Christian woman, and we lament her; but before many days another sister is prepared of the Lord to serve in her stead. Baptism for the dead never ceases among us. An honored brother falls asleep, and we carry him to the grave; and possibly we fear no other can do his work, and fill the vacancy he leaves. Perhaps no one can do the same work; but yet, in some other way or form, the work is done; and still the vines are trimmed, the sheep are fed, and the lambs are cherished. No one dead man lies in the way to stop the march of the army, as did the corpse of Amasa, which lay gory in the road in David's day. The chosen host still marches on. Even as the stars in their courses, we still move on. God buries his workmen, but his work lives.
In Israel's case the gaps were filled by their own sons. As these men passed away their children took their places. I commend to you, my brethren, this fact as your encouragement in prayer for your children. Oh, that the Lord would pour his spirit upon our seed, and his blessing upon our offspring! Oh, that every saint here may be succeeded by his own descendants! This is the Lord's frequent way of keeping alive the gracious succession. Abraham is gone, but Isaac still kindles the altar-fire. In a blind old age Isaac is gathered to his fathers, but Jacob worships "the fear of his father Isaac." Jacob gathers up his feet in the bed, but Judah and Joseph, and the rest of them, continue as a salt in the earth. Oh, that it may be so in all our families! May we never lack a man to stand before the Lord God of Israel to testify for him! Among all the honors that God can put upon our households I think this is the greatest, that we should have in our families a succession of saints. It is no small privilege to look back and to remember our ancestors who feared the Lord: may we also look forward with hope that, if this dispensation lasts, there may still be some of our name, bearing our blood in their veins, who shall be called by sovereign grace into the service we have loved so well. Search beyond the congregation for new converts, but do not forget to look within your own doors for the largest accessions to the church. Hope that your sons and daughters after the flesh may be born into the one family in heaven and earth," which bears the name of Jesus. Pray that your children may be God's children, and may your prayer come up with acceptance into the ears of the Lord our God, whose mercy is on children's children of them that fear him, and keep his covenant!
All the offices of "the church in the wilderness" were filled with fitting men. Behold Aaron, in his robes of glory and beauty! What a man is he to be the High Priest! With what grace and dignity he presides! He dies: will not the priesthood fail? No, my brethren. Yonder is Eleazar, who occupies his father's place most worthily. Moses also passes away. There is none like Moses. He is king in Jeshurun, without peer or rival. The Jews have a tradition that when he was called to go up to the top of Nebo to die, the people followed him up the hill, the women beating on their breasts, and uttering bitter wailings, while the strong men bowed themselves with grief, and cried, "The father of the nation is to be taken away! Alas, what shall we do?" He was bidden to leave the people on the mountain side, and he went up alone to the place where Jehovah kissed away his soul, and so he passed into his rest. Truly it was a great loss, but the Lord found a man to follow Moses. Joshua was not equal to Moses in many things; and yet for the work he had to do he was a much more fit man than Moses. The times were red with war, and Joshua was more able than Moses to fight the Canaanites and conquer the land. Joshua was the man for the sword, as Moses had been the man of the book. And God will fill every office in his church, not as you and I might wish, but as his infinite wisdom determines. Wherefore let us be of good courage, and fear no lack.
At this second numbering, the people stood ready for greater work than they had ever done before. The first numbering found them fit for the wilderness: the second numbering found them ready for the capture of the goodly land and Lebanon. God had been preparing them, by forty years of marching, for their new enterprise, and for development into a nation. May it please the Lord to make his church ready for the coming of her Lord, and for the salvation of nations! If brighter days are dawning, the church will be prepared as a bride for her husband; and if tribulation is to come to try all the earth, she shall be strengthened as a martyr for the burning. The Lord doth keep her: lest any hurt her he will keep her night and day.
It was Israel's joy that God's love was not withdrawn from the nation. The Lord still owned the tribes as his people. His glory was still above the mercy-seat, and his fiery, cloudy pillar still guided their marchings or fixed their haltings. Still the manna dropped from heaven, and still they drank of the water from the smitten rock. Thus the Lord has a church still, and it is ever the same church, loved of her lord, indwelt by his Spirit, and dedicated to his praise. Let us take courage: the church is not destroyed. Many changes take place, and many sorrows are involved therein, but the church of God is as ever-living as her immortal Head, who has declared, "Because I live, ye shall live also." Still, her stars are the hope of the world's night, and her angels are the heralds of the eternal morning. She follows the bleeding lamb, who is the doctrine of her teaching, the model of her acting, the glory of her hope.
III. Thirdly, let me bring before your minds THE UNCHANGEABLENESS OF THE WORD OF GOD. This we perceive in the last verse. "For the Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the wilderness. And there was not left a man of them, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun."
Note how unchangeable are the threatenings of the Lord. Among these there was not a man of them whom Moses and Aaron the priest numbered. For the Lord had said of them, They shall surely die in the wilderness." Take note of this, you that think God's word can fail: ye know not what ye dream. His words of righteous wrath are not lost: they kill as with a two-edged sword. The verse says, There was not left a man of them." Whom the Lord had condemned to die, nothing could keep alive. Therefore, do not imagine, O you that obey not the Lord, that you shall go unpunished!
The unbelievers were many, yet not one escaped. "Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished." The rebels were a terribly large majority, but the crowds in the broad way make it none the safer. God has no respect for multitudes; "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God." Here they outnumbered the faithful more than ten thousand times; and yet the justice of God did not spare one of them. "There was not left a man of them." How can any of you hope to escape? "Thine hand shall find out all thine enemies." The proudest sinner shall be laid low: the thunders of Jehovah shall smite down each individual transgressor, and no one shall go away free in the day of God's wrath.
It was a long time before all the sinners died; but the long-suffering of God had its limit, and in the end every rebel died in the wilderness. They lived on, some of them, for all the forty years; but they could not pass the bound. Perhaps they said, "Ah! this ban from God will never take effect on us." Yet, ere the years were up, the survivors of the doomed race had to share the common fate. Not a man of those whom Moses and Aaron numbered at Sinai could pass the line of fire which closed in the forty years. God waits, waits in infinite mercy; but the punishment of the wicked is none the less sure. "Their foot shall slide in due time." The Lord hath bent his bow, and made it ready", and when their hour is come, they shall find that he is not slack concerning his word. Do not, I pray you, doubt the terrible certainty of divine threatenings because they are long in taking effect. Say not, "Where is the promise of his coming?" He will come; and when he comes it shall be "in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Some of the unbelieving generation were, no doubt, full of vigor, and they said, "We are as strong as old Caleb, and quite as likely as he to cross the Jordan. Our eyes are as clear as those of Moses, and we shall outlive the forty years appointed us." But death chilled the coals of juniper, and quenched their vehement flame. The stalwart man of war laid down his weapons, vanquished by the unconquerable foe of men. "There was not left a man of them." How like a knell those words sound in my ears! The mighty in the day of battle were no longer mighty when their hour had come. "They could not enter in because of unbelief"; but "their carcases fell in the wilderness." All their days were passed away in the wrath of God. Beware, ye that forget God, lest he tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver. It is vain for you to indulge a hope, "larger" or smaller, if you die in your sin. The justice of the Most High is not to be escaped. In that last great day, when the throne shall be set, and every man shall give an account for the things done in his body, whether they be good or whether they be evil, the strict Judge will by no means clear the guilty, but they shall be driven away in his wrath to the place where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched. Oh that you would flee to Christ for refuge! Look to his cross, I pray you, that you may be saved! As the Lord fulfilled his threatenings, so did he cause his promises to come to pass. Caleb lived on, and so did Joshua. They were often in danger. Did not the rebels take up stones to stone them? They were of often near to death: Joshua was commander-in-chief of the army, and Caleb was a man of war from his youth up. They endured the common risks of soldiers; but nothing could kill them, for God had promised that they should enter the land. They believed God and honored him by their conduct, and therefore he kept them until the hour came to go in unto the land to possess it. There were only two of them; but God did not therefore overlook them. He keeps covenant with individuals as well as with nations. They were not men who kept themselves out of harm's way, neither were they timorous, and therefore afraid to advance their opinions. No doubt they came in for a special share of envy and malice, but their reward with God was sure. If you believe in Jesus, though you should be the only one of your family, yet you shall be saved. Though you know none of your kith and kin that fear the Lord, yet the God of Israel will not forget the lone one who is separated from his brethren. Though the faithful should become so few that all the saints together should only make a handful, yet it is written, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
God's word standeth. "The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you." Jehovah's threatenings and promises are of equal force. "Hath he said, and shall he not do it?" There shall be no change even to a jot or tittle in this wondrous book. God forbid that we should begin to doubt it; for if we once begin, where shall we end? With this striking confirmation before us, we believe that the word of the Lord must stand. Let us be as the man whom the Lord blesses, because, saith he, "he trembleth at my word."
IV. Our last point is this: learn from my text THE ABIDING NECESSITY OF FAITH. Those people came out of Egypt with Moses, and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea when they came forth into the wilderness. One would have hoped that they all would march to Canaan, but it was not so. The first census is taken, their names are on the roll; but, sad to say, at the next numbering all those names have vanished. What a difference between the church-roll at Sinai and the book of life by Jordan!
If you profess to be the people of God, we count you among his children: you are written among the living in Zion; but what an awful thing it would be if your name should not be written in the Lamb's Book of Life at the last! What if you should lie on the threshing-floor in the great heap before the winnowing, but should be gone with the chaff as soon as the Lord has come, "whose fan is in his hand"! Oh, that none of us may provoke the Lord to swear in his wrath that we shall not enter into his rest!
Learn, first, that no man is, was, or ever shall be saved without faith. "He that believeth not shall be damned" is our Lord's solemn declaration. It is written, "He that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." This is as true to-day as when it was first spoken.
Learn, next, that no privilege can supply the lack of faith. We read that they heard, as you do; but some, when they had heard, did provoke." Their provocation lay mainly in their unbelief. No hearing, nay, not hearing the apostles themselves, could save you without faith. "The word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it." Hearing may minister to condemnation if the truth is not believed.
These people went a certain way with Moses towards the Lord's promised rest. They did come out of Egypt, they were numbered with Jehovah's people, in the numbering at Sinai, they were separated from all the world in the quietude of the wilderness; but we read there was in them "an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God." In heart they went back into Egypt. It is not enough to begin well: "he that endureth to the end shall be saved," and no other. They had ceremonies in abundance, but they were not saved by them. They had the morning and the evening lambs; they were circumcised; they ate the Passover; they kept the Day of Atonement; but all these things together did not save them from dying in the desert, shut out of Canaan by unbelief. "They could not enter in because of unbelief." Nothing can make up for the absence of faith. They had nothing to do all the day long in the wilderness, but to learn the lessons of God. They had time for thought, and they had the best of teachers to instruct them, and the best of school-books in the ceremonial law, and yet their knowledge did not preserve them from leaving their carcases in the desert. They had plenty of time for meditation and contemplation; they had no care about temporals, for their bread was given them, and their waters were sure; and yet because of want of faith they did not learn that elementary truth which would have ministered to them an entrance into rest.
But none perished who had faith; no, not one. All those who believed God, and held fast to him, were made inheritors of the land. Caleb and Joshuathese two saw the land, and took their places in it. If thou believest, whatever thy name may be, thou shalt be saved; for "he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." It is written, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved." Caleb and Joshua by faith entered into the land promised to the fathers, and thou, my hearer, canst only enter in by faith. Have faith in God, and thou hast all things; but without faith it is impossible to please God.
Mark this: while it was faith alone which saved them, faith gave these men notable characters. We read of "my servant Caleb." He that believes God becomes a servant of God, and counts it all joy to obey his Lord. Faith is the mother of obedience. The Lord said that Caleb "had another spirit with him": faith puts quite another spirit into a man: it is not a murmuring or a mutinous spirit; it is not an ungrateful or distrustful Spirit; neither is it a haughty, wilful, rebellious spirit; but it is a spirit of love, of hope, of confidence in God. The faithful man is of another spirit from that of the world; for the Holy Spirit abides in him. Such a man chooses the way of God, so that the Lord says, "He hath followed me fully." This was well: it is wise not to run before God, nor to run away from God, but to follow him step by step. It is wise not to follow man but wholly to follow the Lord. It is commendable to follow him fully with undivided, unwavering, unquestioning, untiring step. The Lord will see that his servant Caleb enters into his rest: there is rest for good servants. As Caleb followed the Lord fully, it was meet that he should enter in where his Lord abides. Men of faith are not idle men, but servants: they are not wicked men, but they follow the Lord; they are not halfhearted men, they follow him fully. It is not their holiness that saves them; but their faith saves them: nevertheless, where there is no holiness, there is no fruit of faith, and no evidence of salvation.
As for Joshua, he was like to Caleb. He was a brave and truthful man, a true servant of God; and though we have his life given somewhat at length, yet we discover no flaw in his character. It is almost a rare thing in the Word of God to find a life written at any length without a record of infirmity and sin; for the biographies of Scripture are truthful, and they mention men's faults as well as their virtues. As there is no recorded fault in Joshua's career, we gather that he was of a noble character. "The Lord said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay thine hand upon him." So that the faith which took these two men into Canaan was in them the creator of a noble character.
Now, what say you, beloved friends? Do you believe God? Do you believe his Word? Or are you of a captious and dubious spirit? Do you believe like children? Is God your Father, and therefore is his Word your Father's Word, which you cannot think of questioning? Will you follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth, against giants or Canaanites? Will you believe God, whatever may give him the lie? If so, you shall dwell in the land that floweth with milk and honey, and you shall have your portion when the Lord appeareth. But if you do not truly believe, whatever profession you may make, your carcases must fall in the wilderness. Woe is me that I have to deliver such a prophecy! Greater woe to you if it should be fulfilled in you. Believe the Lord, and you shall prosper. This day as you are preparing for the census of the nation, bethink you of the time when God shall make up his last account of natives in his holy city. Will you be numbered with his people, or will your names be left out at the reading of the muster-roll? God give us a place among his redeemed, and to his name shall be glory for ever and ever! Amen.
PORTIONS OF SCRIPTURE READ BEFORE SERMONNumbers 1:1-5, 44-46; 14:1-10, 20-35; 26:1-4; 63-65.
HYMNS FROM "OUR OWN HYMN BOOK"87, 888, 90.