Verses 1-16 (Numbers 1:1-16)

I. We have here a commission issued out for the numbering of the people of Israel; and David, long after, paid dearly for doing it without a commission. Here is,

1. The date of this commission, Num. 1:1. (1.) The place: it is given at God?s court in the wilderness of Sinai, from his royal palace, the tabernacle of the congregation. (2.) The time: In the second year after they came up out of Egypt; we may call it the second year of that reign. The laws in Leviticus were given in the first month of that year; these orders were given in the beginning of the second month.

2. The directions given for the execution of it, Num. 1:2; 3. (1.) None were to be numbered but the males, and those only such as were fit for war. None under twenty years old; for, though some such might have bulk and strength enough for military service, yet, in compassion to their tender years, God would not have them put upon it to bear arms. (2.) Nor were any to be numbered who through age, or bodily infirmity, blindness, lameness, or chronical diseases, were unfit for war. The church being militant, those only are reputed the true members of it that have enlisted themselves soldiers of Jesus Christ; for our life, our Christian life, is a warfare. (3.) The account was to be taken according to their families, that it might not only be known how many they were, and what were their names, but of what tribe and family, or clan, nay, of what particular house every person was; or, reckoning it the muster of an army, to what regiment every man belonged, that he might know his place himself and the government might know where to find him. They were numbered a little before this, when their poll-money was paid for the service of the tabernacle, Exod. 38:25; 26. But it should seem they were not then registered by the house of their fathers, as now they were. Their number was the same then that it was now: 603,550 men; for as many as had died since then, and were lost in the account, so many had arrived to be twenty years old, and were added to the account. Note, As one generation passeth a way another generation cometh. As vacancies are daily made, so recruits are daily raised to fill up the vacancies, and Providence takes care that, one time or other, in one place or other, the births shall balance the burials, that the race of mankind and the holy seed may not be cut off and become extinct.

3. Commissioners are named for the doing of this work. Moses and Aaron were to preside (Num. 1:3), and one man of every tribe, that was renowned in his tribe, and was presumed to know it well, was to assist in it?the princes of the tribes, Num. 1:16. Note, Those that are honourable should study to be serviceable; he that is great, let him be your minister, and show, by his knowing the public, that he deserves to be publicly known. The charge of this muster was committed to him who was the lord-lieutenant of that tribe. Now,

II. Why was this account ordered to be taken and kept? For several reasons. 1. To prove the accomplishment of the promise made to Abraham, that God would multiply his seed exceedingly, which promise was renewed to Jacob (Gen. 28:14), that his seed should be as the dust of the earth. Now it appears that there did not fail one tittle of that good promise, which was an encouragement to them to hope that the other promise of the land of Canaan for an inheritance should also be fulfilled in its season. When the number of a body of men is only guessed at, upon the view, it is easy for one that is disposed to cavil to surmise that the conjecture is mistaken, and that, if they were to be counted, they would not be found half so many; therefore God would have Israel numbered, that it might be upon record how vastly they were increased in a little time, that the power of God?s providence and the truth of his promise may be seen and acknowledged by all. It could not have been expected, in any ordinary course of nature, that seventy-five souls (which was the number of Jacob?s family when he went down into Egypt) should in 215 years (and it was no longer) multiply into so many hundred thousands. It is therefore to be attributed to an extraordinary virtue in the divine promise and blessing. 2. It was to intimate the particular care which God himself would take of his Israel, and which Moses and the inferior rulers were expected to take of them. God is called the Shepherd of Israel, Ps. 80:1. Now the shepherds always kept count of their flocks, and delivered them by number to their under-shepherds, that they might know if any were missing; in like manner God numbers his flock, that of all which he took into his fold he might lose none but upon a valuable consideration, even those that were sacrificed to his justice. 3. It was to put a difference between the true born Israelites and the mixed multitude that were among them; none were numbered but Israelites: all the world is but lumber in comparison with those jewels. Little account is made of others, but the saints God has a particular property in and concern for. The Lord knows those that are his (2 Tim. 2:19), knows them by name, Phil. 4:3. The hairs of their head are numbered; but he will say to others, ?I never knew you, never made any account of you.? 4. It was in order to their being marshalled into several districts, for the more easy administration of justice, and their more regular march through the wilderness. It is a rout and a rabble, not an army, that is not mustered and put in order.

- Matthew Henry's Complete Commentary