Sermon preached at a local church on June 14, 2020
This morning we are in Numbers 31:32-35. I will be preaching from the New King James Version, but any translation should suite you well in this study. The text reads: “The booty remaining from the plunder, which the men of war had taken, was six hundred and seventy-five thousand sheep, seventy-two thousand cattle, sixty-one thousand donkeys, and thirty-two thousand persons in all, of women who had not known a man intimately.”
Let’s pray. Father in Heaven, we know that You are sovereign over all things. Please illuminate this text for us and teach us solid truths from it. In Christ’s name I pray, amen.
One of the most awkward times in Sunday School comes when someone is asked to read a passage from the Bible but it turns out to be the wrong passage. For example, you might be asked to read Psalm 39:7, which says, “And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you.” But you carelessly turn to Psalm 38:7. Well, that ends up being a big deal, because Psalm 38:7 says, “For my loins are full of inflammation.” You clearly have read the wrong verse, and everyone knows it – because who on earth would preach a Sunday School lesson on Psalm 38:7, “My loins are full of inflammation”?
Well, I want to challenge that assumption today, by saying that you have no greater reason to read Psalm 39 than you do Psalm 38, because both of those chapters hold sacred words from God. Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). All Scripture is God-breathed. All Scripture is useful towards the end that you be equipped for ever good work.
It’s easy to believe this about John 3:16 or the book of Romans, but what about Psalm 38:7? What about our text this morning, Numbers 31:32-47? Do you believe that this passage in Numbers was inspired by God in such a way that it is infallible and supremely beneficial for you? Or maybe a better question is how? How is this passage useful? This is the kind of passage that most of us are tempted to skip on our Bible reading plans. This morning, I want to demonstrate for you that even meticulous passages like Numbers 31 are overflowing with glory and gospel.
First, let’s consider the immediate, historical meaning of the passage. At the beginning of chapter 31, God ordered an attack on the Midianites. Moses obeyed and sent Israelite men, who soundly won the battle. In verse 26, God instructed Moses to take a count of all the plunder that Israel had won from Midian. God wanted Israel to know exactly what they had received so that they would know exactly how much to tithe.
In the Mosaic Law, God had prescribed certain tithes for Israel to keep. This kept the tribe of Levi alive, and especially the priests who came from the tribe of Levi. The priests devoted their time and energy to serving the Lord in the tabernacle. They didn’t have time during the week to work a field or to hunt. This tithe kept them alive. So God wanted a fraction of the spoils of war to be given to the Levi’s and the priests.
So verses 32-35 provide an accounting of the plunder. These verses quantify what Israel gained from conquering the Midianites. This is the historical meaning of our passage. If I were to put it into one sentence, I would say, “At the command of God, Israel gave an account of their plunder, so that accurate tithes could be made.” That’s the historical meaning.
Second, I want us to consider the theological significance of this passage. What theological treasures can we derive from verses 32-35. You might be tempted to focus on the numbers: six hundred and seventy-five thousand… seventy-two thousand… sixty-one thousand… thirty-two thousand. These numbers have got to be in the book of Revelation somewhere, right?
Another option would be to search the Scriptures for each of the animals listed here, and impute that significance into this passage. The “sheep” in verse 32 represent us, New Covenant Christians, because Christ told Peter to “feed my sheep.” The “cattle” in verse 33 represent the wealth of God, because the Psalmist reminds us that God has a thousand cattle on a thousand hills. The donkeys represent the poor and oppressed of the world, because just a few chapters before this, Balaam abused his donkey.
This kind of interpretive dance is fun, but it isn’t honest. The truth is that we have no good reason to assume that the sheep, cattle, and donkeys in Numbers 31 are anything but sheep, cattle, and donkeys. Our text is not allegory, it is simply a head-count. And it’s in the simple head-count that we find the theological significance.
This passage teaches us that God care about the details. God cares about the details. God does not deal in loose, changing terms. He always reads the fine print and is a stickler for abiding by a standard. We see God’s care about the details in at least two ways.
First, God cares about the details in covenant. In the Law, God promised the priests a livelihood for serving Him in the tabernacle. God was going to see that Israel honored that agreement. God is a covenant keeping God. He remembers the covenants He makes. He put a rainbow in the sky to serve as a reminder of the Noahic Covenant, that the earth would never flood again. In 2 Kings, after Israel was sent into exile, He did not let foreigners live in the Promised Land without at least paying lip-service to the Mosaic Law. Even then, God remembered the covenant He had made with Abraham, that his descendants would inherit Canaan forever. So that is the first sub-point: God cares about the details in covenant.
Second, God cares about the details in conquest. Men lose their minds in war, but God does not. Men are given to passions and ambitions in war, but God is not. God has wrath, but He is never overcome with wrath. His judgments and considerations are always clear and level-headed. And following a conquest, God cares about the details of what has been conquered. If God has conquered 100 square miles in Canaan, He is not OK with Israel only settling 90 square miles. If God has conquered seventy-two thousand cattle, He is not OK with Israel only verifying seventy-one thousand. If God is victorious over something, He wants His seal put upon it.
So that is the theological significance of our passage: God cares about the details, in both covenant and conquest.
New Testament Significance
Third, I want us to understand the New Testament significance of this passage. The New Testament significance. This is an Old Covenant passage. In order to understand the practical ramifications for us, we first have to transfer the meaning into the New Covenant.
First of all, I am delighted to inform you, brothers and sisters, that our High Priest does not need a tithe. The priests of the Old Covenant were sinners. They were conceived in sin, born in sin, grew up in sin, and conducted their priestly duties in sin. That meant that they would one day die and none of their priestly duties bore any lasting effect. Israel tithed to her priests because her priests were dying men who could not provide for themselves.
But our High Priest needs no such tithe. Hebrews 7:23-28 makes this plain.
Also, there were many priests, because they were prevented by death from continuing. But He, because He continues forever, has an unchangeable priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, wo is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weaknesses, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever.
Christ does not need your help. He does not need your money or your clothes. He does not need your job or your house. Christ is God Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and earth, and He does not need you to fund his High Priestly ministry. On the contrary, it is from Christ that heavenly treasures flow down to us. In Numbers 31, Israel had to support her priests. In the New Covenant, our High Priest supports us.
And I am so glad this is the case, because I am not a rich man. And even if I were, how could I ever provide enough cattle and donkeys and gold to fund Christ’s ministry? How could I ever accumulate enough treasure to save my soul? I could never. So I say that the Gospel is no Gospel unless it is for poor sinners.
We look at Numbers 31 and we are reminded that, unlike the Levite priests, Christ does not need our riches in order to make intercession on our behalf. He saves us to the uttermost by His power alone.
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready, stands to save you
Full of pity, love and power
Come, ye thirsty, come and welcome
God’s free bounty glorify
True belief and true repentance
Every grace that brings you nigh
Come, ye weary, heavy-laden
Lost and ruined by the fall
If you tarry ‘til you’re better
You will never come at all
Second of all, I am delighted to inform you, brothers and sisters, that if God cared about the details of the Old Covenant, how much more does He care about the details of the New? If God cared about accurately counting the number of donkeys from Midian, how much more does He care about accurately dispensing the blessings He has promised us in Christ? I assure you, God cares a lot more about you than He does cattle and sheep.
Let me ask you this, church: how many Christians do you believe God will forget to resurrect? None. How many believers do you think God will pass-by in their graves? None. When Christ comes to raise His people from the grave, there will not be a single believer who is left in the decay of death. God cares about the details, and that means He will not leave any believer in the chains of death.
Not only this, but He will not leave any part of you to sin. You will not find yourself in the New Heavens and Earth, half glorified. You see Jesus walking along the road and He says, “Oh my, I’m so sorry – we forgot to glorify your whole self! A simple accounting error, we’ll get it fixed.” No my friend, God will forget to redeem every square inch of your body and soul. He will not leave a single hair on your head un-resurrected and unredeemed. He will not fail to rid you of a single sin. God cares about the details, and that means He will be sure to save you to the uttermost.
God will not forget your resurrection, and He has not forgotten your justification, either. The records of Heaven are never misplaced. The declarations of God are never mix-matched. If God has declared you not guilty, that declaration will stand through eternity. God cares about the details, He cares about the fine print, and He will not forget your justification.
So these two things, that Christ does not need our tithes and God does not forget our redemption, are alluded to by our text. In Numbers 31, we learn that God cares about the details. He cares about the details in covenant: when He makes a promise, He ensures that it will be fulfilled. And so we have reflected on the New Covenant.
Lastly, I want to explain the cautionary significance of this text. There is a warning that comes with this passage. Earlier, I said that God cares about the details in covenant and in conquest. That’s what Numbers 31 tells us. We just talked about how He cares about the details in covenant: He will not forget to redeem us. The warning of this passage comes from the second point, that He cares about the details in conquest.
The possessions that Israel had in verses 32-35 – sheep, cattle, donkeys, and persons – were all taken from the Midianites. The Midianites were enemies of God and His people, and God wiped them out. This is what happens to those who set themselves against God. God’s enemies, in the end, are always conquered.
And not only are they conquered, but everything they worked for ends up benefiting the kingdom of God. Solomon taught us this in Ecclesiastes 3:26, “To the sinner [God] gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God.” That is exactly what we find in Numbers 31. In the end, the Midianites were conquered and Israel enjoyed their riches. And, God had Israel count exactly what was taken from the Midianites. God cared about what exactly was conquered.
The same is true in a broader sense when we come to the New Testament. Christ told His disciples in Matthew 28:18, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And Paul wrote in Colossians 1, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (vv.19-20). Christ, by His obedience and the decree of God, has been made King of all things. He has been given “the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). My point here is that Christ has conquered all things. You cannot find anything in this universe, visible or invisible, that has not been conquered by Christ.
The caution of Numbers 31 is this: God cares about the details when He conquers, and Jesus has conquered the world – so don’t think for a second that your sin will escape His wrath. At the judgment, God will do an accounting. Much like how the Israelites counted seventy-two thousand cattle. Except this time, He will be counting those for whom His wrath is due. He will forget no one. He will leave no one out.
Your only hope is to call upon Him for salvation. If you do, then you will find yourself numbered among a different crowd on that day: those redeemed by the blood of Christ. God has known these people since before He created the world. The sun has never risen on a day that the Lord has not loved His elect. And when all things are finished, and the accounting of the Lamb’s book of life is conducted, you will not be left out. He will forget no one. Because God cares about the details.