Numbers (In the Wilderness)

Numbers 7-9, Pillar of Fire

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There are two primary messages God has taught the people as they make preparations to leave Mount Sinai and journey to the promised land. First, God must be in the center of their lives. Everything they do must revolve around God. God is in everything in their lives. Second, God must be counted as holy. Defilements and sins remove people from the presence of God. God is so holy that people cannot approach him and the Levites are camped around the tabernacle to prevent anyone from approaching. This brings us to Numbers 7-9 where God delivers another important message to the people about himself and about his relationship to them before they can leave for the promised land. Open your Bible to Numbers 7 and we will begin to see this message over the next few chapters.

God Speaks (Numbers 7)

Numbers 7 records the dedication offerings given by the heads of each of the tribes. The first verse of chapter 7 tells us this happened once the tabernacle had been set up and anointed and all the furnishings put into it. You will notice that each day one of the heads of the tribes brings an offering to the dedication of the tabernacle for 12 days. Notice verse 89 after all the offerings have been made. Moses goes into the tabernacle to speak with the Lord. The Lord is dwelling with his people, fulfilling Exodus 25:22, and he is speaking to Moses. The tabernacle becomes the place of attentive listening. God is speaking and Moses is listening. This is the unfolding story of the scriptures: God speaks and the recorded response of humanity to God’s voice. This is the theme of these four chapters. God is going to speak and we are going to see what the responses of Moses and the people are.

God Cleanses (Numbers 8)

Chapter 8 records the cleansing of the priests for service. God has requirements of the operation of the tabernacle. The lamps needs to be set up in the way God says. So in Numbers 8:3 and 8:4 we are told that lamps were made and set us as the Lord commanded. In Numbers 8:22 the Levites are purified and cleansed as the Lord commanded Moses. As the Lord commanded so they did.

God Consulted (Numbers 9:1-14)

Next God tells the people that it is time for them to keep the Passover feast in Numbers 9:1-2. It has been one year since the people had been brought out of Egyptian slavery by the power and might of the Lord. So the preparations are being made for the Passover. But a question arises in verse 6. There are certain men who are unclean because they touched a dead body. So they come to Moses and Aaron and ask why they cannot bring the Lord’s offering and participate in this Passover feast (9:7). Please notice what Moses does in verse 8.

Moses answered them, “Wait until I find out what the Lord commands concerning you.” (Numbers 9:8 NIV)

Moses does not tell these men that of course they can keep the Passover. You cannot help that you had to touch a dead body. Moses does not tell them it is not a big deal or to not worry about it. Neither does Moses say that they are completely excluded and it is too bad for them. What does Moses say? Moses says, “Let me ask the Lord and see what he says.” Wait until I find out what God’s will is.

Please listen to this critical message: The question of obedience to God’s law is not guessed or assumed. We look first to God’s guidance. We look to what God has revealed. We do not guess. We do not assume. We do not give our “I think so” opinions. We must always seek the will of the Lord before acting. Too many decisions regarding God’s law are made based on our own human opinions. Too many guesses are made about how to obey God’s law. Moses does not guess about this question these men have. Moses needs to know what God says about it. We must have the same heart. If there is any question we have, we must look for the answer in God’s word. God is the authority over our lives, not our opinions or feelings. When it comes to issues that arise concerning obedience and worship, we must never assume that our wisdom is enough to make a judgment. But historically this is what people do. People have added instruments into the worship. Where is the authority given to us to do this? People have used the Lord’s money for charities and causes. But where is the authority given to us to do this? People want the church to be more of a social organization in helping physical needs. But where is the authority given to us to do this? In our last lesson we saw the dangerous holiness of God. God is telling his people to not presume what you can and cannot do. Moses has no right to say that God’s silence about this makes it okay. God’s silence is not authority. God did not reveal his will in a way that declares everything that we cannot do. I use this example all the time. Why can’t we have hamburgers and Coke for the Lord’s Supper? The scriptures do not say we can’t. We must not merely ask if God prohibited something. We must also ask did God authorize something. I have never told my daughter to never drive 110 miles per hour. I told her to obey the traffic laws. We must operate in the sphere of authority given and not ever presume what we can do with obedience or in worship to God. This message is emphasized in the rest of Numbers 9.

God Followed (Numbers 9:15-23)

Read Numbers 9:15-23. Did you see the repetition of this paragraph? The people of Israel kept the charge of the Lord and did things according to the command of the Lord. Over and over again the text says that they acted “according to the command of the Lord.” The narrative contains eight references to the Lord’s orders and Israel’s obedient response. At the command of the Lord they camped and at the command of the Lord they set out. What was the command of the Lord in this text? The command of the Lord was the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The pillar represented the charge of the Lord. The people did nothing unless the Lord moved first.

This is another important message as we prepare to go to the promised land. God leads us and we do not lead God. This fits closely with our last point. God is consulted first and we only act where God leads. We must not act first and try to make God justify our decisions. We move only when God moves. Where God is that is where we are. When God says stop, we stop. When God says go, we go. The camp of Israel did not move unless it was by the will of the Lord.

The pillar demanded their obedience to God. The Lord does his part in providing them with the guiding cloud, but they must do theirs in responding to his directions. Look at Numbers 9:18.

At the command of the Lord the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the Lord they camped. (Numbers 9:18 ESV)

The story of Numbers is a perpetual warning against the danger of knowing what God demands but failing to do it. What did we note was a thread of the scriptures? God speaks and what will be the response of humanity to God’s voice. The pillar tested the people’s dependence on God. The people needed to trust when it is time to camp and when it was time to walk. The people did not know the route. The people did not know what days they were going to stay put or pack up and move. All the people were required to do was watch the guiding pillar. They were absolutely dependent on God’s guidance.

Now we may say that we do not have a pillar of cloud and fire to lead us. You are right. We have something better. We have something infinitely better. We see Jesus. We have his words. We have his life. We have his teachings. We have the God-breathed words delivered through the apostles and prophets so that we know exactly the direction we are to do. Before we can take our journey to the promised land, God requires that we understand three concepts. First, God must be in the center. We will fail in the wilderness if God does not remain in the center. Second, God must be considered extremely holy. Ignoring God’s holiness will cause God’s wrath to break out against any who violate it. Third, God will lead us by his words and we must listen like Moses. We do not say where we go or how we will go. We come before God and we listen. We do not talk. We listen to God and we do everything according to the authority and the command of the Lord.

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