When we get to the tenth chapter, the Israelites are ready to go. They had made trumpets that were to be sounded when they began their march. This section probably also belongs earlier chronologically. The trumpets may have been made when all of the other articles were made, as described especially in Exodus. But the description of the trumpets is held for here because the trumpets signaled the march.
The trumpets are sounded and they begin to go. It must have been a splendid moment in their lives. They’d come out of Egypt as a bunch of rabble. Now they were disciplined, formed into tribes, counted, and arranged. They had a law and they had a portable temple where God condescended to dwell. Moses must have been excited. As the cloud rose up and started out, Moses shouted his battle hymn, “Rise up, O LORD! May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you” (v. 35). When the cloud stopped and settled down upon the tabernacle again, Moses said, “Return, O LORD, to the countless thousands of Israel” (v. 36). What a wonderful time!
And yet, it wasn’t very long after this, when they were at the very edge of the promised land, ready to go and take it, that they got a bad report from the spies. They thought that God was impotent, and they failed to advance. All the glory of their march evaporated with their sin.
There are some important lessons to learn from this section. The first is that preparation for spiritual work is important. Numbers has 36 chapters. We looked at the first ten, which means that just about one third of the book has been spent on preparation. How long are you going to live? If you live sixty years, and if the percentage means anything, you should have a good twenty years spent in preparation. If you’re going to live to be ninety, then you’ve got to have thirty years of preparation to do something worthwhile.
I am sure the percentages are not to be viewed that strictly, but certainly you don’t become trained for God’s service without time and effort. If you want to be used by God, get ready to do it. Spend time in preparation. How you do that? Above all by learning the Word of God, acquiring the skills that are necessary to serve Him. The church exists for worship, praise of God, fellowship, and witness, but also to train God’s people for works of service. Take the time to get prepared. There is work for you to do.
The second lesson is that preparation, as important as it is, must be followed by a deliberate moving forward at God’s command. You have to put into operation what it is that you have been taught.
What are we to do? A lot of it depends on our gifts. But one thing all of us are to do is to take the Gospel to other people. Do you know anybody who isn’t a Christian? That is somebody you’ve got to teach about the Gospel. Do you know the Gospel? Do you understand why Jesus Christ died and what happened on the cross? Can you describe that in any terms at all to an unbeliever? If not, you better go back and study more. But if you do understand the Gospel, you need to teach other people. Are you teaching, or sharing with anyone, the truths of the Gospel?
The third point of application is that each of us has a place in this advance. You can’t miss that in Numbers. Here you’ve got the numbering of the people, the arranging of the tribes, the numbering of the Levites, the setting apart of the people. In all the details, in all the various breakdowns of the people into groups, everyone has his place. Each of us is important. That means you are important, and what you do for the Lord Jesus Christ counts. And not only does it count, it counts forever, because you and I are engaged in spiritual work. We are not building up a secular company and we are not constructing buildings that one day are going to fall down. We’re building for eternity.
When Jesus was calling those to be His disciples, He told them to follow Him, and He would make them fishers of men (Matt. 4:19). It’s good to fish for fish because people have to eat. But the fish will be eaten and the people will still die. If you fish for men with the Gospel, those who are saved will live forever, and your works will live forever.
Lastly, although what we do counts, we can fail to do anything. And this failure is inevitable if we don’t really trust and obey God. I’ll give you a sober thought based upon this first census. Realize that every single individual whose name is recorded in this first census in the book of Numbers died in the desert and never got to Canaan, except for Joshua and Caleb. They were the two who had faith, the two spies who came back with a good report. And God allowed them to go into the land. They fought, and they did a marvelous job later, but everybody else died. When you get to the second census, which we find in Numbers 26, it’s an entirely different list of names.
With that in mind, think of Hebrews 3-4. The author of the book of Hebrews refers to these events as a warning to the people in his day that they press on in belief and obedience to God and not fall by the wayside as those did who perished in the desert. That’s a sober warning. It means you can have heard these things, you can understand the Gospel, you can even agree with them mentally to a certain extent, and yet refuse to go on with Jesus Christ and so perish in your sins. The book of Numbers says that God doesn’t want you to do that. The Gospel is good news. It’s the offer of eternal life. Believe it when you hear it, and go on in service to Jesus Christ, doing His work that will last forever and ever.