The Bible uses many cultural phrases to describe one’s relationship with God. Some of them are occupational phrases such as “farmer,” “builder,” or “soldier.” Others are relational phrases like “children,” “sons and daughters,” or “bride and bridegroom.” God used these phrases because He wanted the people to recognize, through these phrases, their responsibilities to Him.
God made a covenant with the people when He gathered them at Mt. Sinai. By definition, a “covenant” is an agreement between two parties with conditions to be met and promises or blessings to be received. When one reads Deuteronomy, for example, it is a rehearsal of all that God and Israel had promised to do and be for each other. Because God and Israel had agreed by covenant to His terms, He commanded Moses, in the opening pages of Numbers, to take a census of the people and list the men who were above twenty years of age. These would be the men capable of forming Israel’s army to go to war for God. The census count was 603,550. God had already exempted the Levites because of their priestly responsibilities. Why then was such a census necessary? God in His omniscience already had Israel numbered in His mind. Perhaps it would be dangerous, in a way, for Israel to know, lest they brag about how large a force they were. The count, however, was more than a numbering of the people. It was an eligibility list—that is, a draft of those eligible to fight. God knew that the journey before them was hard. Israel would have to learn physical combat. The nations before them lived in walled cities and would not voluntarily move out of their homes and off the land so foreigners could move in. They would have to be physically dispossessed from those cities and fields by the army of God. As the Book of Numbers was being compiled, two of these censuses would be taken during the forty-year period it covers. One was ordered in chapters 1 and 2; the other was ordered at the end of the wilderness wanderings in chapters 25 through 27. When the two censuses are placed side by side, interesting information is obtained. On the surface the comparison shows only a decrease of 1,820 Israelites. However, this number does not take into account the new births over the forty-year span. When these are added in, it amounts to a staggering loss. The number of children born in the first two years taken in a redemption census was 22,273. Think how many more must have been born over another thirty-eight years. Some of the tribes remarkably increased while some showed a substantial decrease. Here are the differences.
Several principles and applications need to be made from this census that God commanded of Israel.
I. Israel was prepared for battle
Israel was being molded into a well-organized body of people. Earlier in the wilderness, at Jethro’s suggestion to his son-in-law, Moses, the people were grouped, for judging, into companies of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands. When the census was taken, men were designated out of every tribe to assist in the registration (cf. 1:5-17). If the census was taken under Jethro’s plan, one can see how easily the people could have been registered. Also a poll tax for the erection of the tabernacle had been levied nine months earlier and the number came out the same as the census figures. (Cf. Exodus 8:26 and Numbers 1:46.) The census, then, was more than a count; it was a numbered draft of the people, according to each family. With Joshua as commander of the army, it would have been easy for Israel to march in battle order with captains of tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands. These elements are, in fact, roughly how our own modern army is ordered— a battalion (one thousand), a company (one hundred), a platoon (fifty), and a squad (eight to ten).
With few exceptions, everyone was expected to answer the call to battle. Only five exemptions to service are mentioned:
Every example of God’s church-family in the New Testament indicates an organization of a congregational unit. Whether the members met in homes or rented halls, the church was organized. Whenever members of the Lord’s body went from one place to another, they sought out the fellowship of the church in their area. They identified themselves as saints to the new group (cf. Acts 11:26; 19:9, 26-28). Often letters of recommendation accompanied them or were sent in advance (Acts 18:27; 3 John 3-8). Is it not sad today, however, when members of the Lord’s church do not “report in”? They feel no responsibility to identify themselves with the church or to let anyone know they are members of the body! They certainly could not get away with it in the military; they would be considered AWOL.
II. Israel had to fight the battles
Israel’s reason for failure for forty years in the wilderness was fear. Their lack of faith in God and their fear of failure before a superior force defeated them over and over again. In a later incident recorded in Numbers, ten of the twelve spies sent out came back with an unfavorable report. The bottom line was they did not want the land bad enough to fight for it. God had to constantly encourage and boost the morale of the people to convince them they could win. He had promised to drive out their enemies before them. Yet God’s plan involved both His power and their participation. Victory would not come without the shedding of blood. Christians need to realize that we are in a war also. It is a war that Satan is waging against our very souls and those of our fellow man. We are in a war zone! It is obvious that many brethren do not realize this truth because they are in tents of ease rather than fighting on the front line.
The Civil War story is told of a young soldier, who was separated from his unit. After finding his way back to friendly forces, he reported to the commander. “Where do you want me?” the young man asked the officer. The commander replied, “Jump in anywhere, son. There’s fighting all along the line.”
Paul urges us to put on the whole armor of God and engage the devil in hand-to-hand combat, up close and personal. In fact, the devil will bring the battle to us if we will just stand firm (Ephesians 6:10-18). The glorious picture given in Revelation is that of victorious soldiers of the cross having won the battle, coming home, and worthy to wash their robes in the blood of Jesus (Revelation 7:13-15). We must fight the battles to win the victory, to receive the prize.
III. Casualties resulted from unbelief and disobedience
Many in Israel became unfaithful, and their demise was due to direct disobedience to the will of God (cf. Hebrews 3:16-19). When one considers, again, the earlier and later censuses, we realize how staggering Israel’s losses were.
If we would take a census among our own ranks, in the church, we might be shocked at how Satan is constantly and continually thinning the ranks. Many members have deserted the body of Christ and gone back into the world. Many have stopped assembling with the saints and are no longer faithful. Many have laid down their armor and are no longer resisting Satan’s opposition.
On the encouraging side, however, we find, that before every battle, the leadership encouraged the people in their fight (cf. Deuteronomy 20:2-4). We can understand why God speaks words of encouragement to His people on this side of the cross as well. Consider this statement: “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, nor forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24, 25).
Ever since my childhood days at Vacation Bible School, I remember the song “I’m in the Lord’s Army.” That childlike song has implications to faithfulness and service in God’s cause. Since He has called us into His service, we need to serve Him with undying devotion and unswerving commitment; for He holds out for us, too, a land of promised blessing. Is the battle not worth it?