Numbers 4 Bible Commentary

John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible

(Read all of Numbers 4)
This chapter relates an order to number the Levites fit for business, and gives an account of the time and age when they should enter into service, and how long they should continue therein, Numbers 4:1; what their particular service should be; and first of the Kohathites, Numbers 4:4; next of the Gershonites, Numbers 4:21; and then of the Merarites, Numbers 4:29; after which Moses and Aaron, with the chief of the congregation, numbered each of them, even as many as were at the age fit for service, as the Kohathites, Numbers 4:34; the Gershonites, Numbers 4:38; the Merarites, Numbers 4:42; the sum total of which is given, Numbers 4:46.

Verse 1. And the Lord spake unto Moses, and unto Aaron,.... After they had taken the number of the Levites, and made an exchange of the firstborn of Israel for them; and now they are ordered to number them a second time, and take out from them such as were fit for service:

saying; as follows.

Verse 2. Take the sum of the sons of Kohath from among the sons of Levi,.... They were to begin with them first, and number them:

after their families, by the house of their fathers; as many as were of the age after mentioned; and the reason why they began with Kohath, and not Gershon, the eldest son, as in the former numbering, was; not as Aben Ezra suggests, because of Moses and Aaron, who sprung from him, for that, if it had any strength in it, would have held good before; but rather, as Chaskuni and others, because the Kohathites carried the ark and other holy things; though the true reason seems to be, because of the order observed in taking down the tabernacle, and removing the parts of it, and the things in it; and it was most proper and reasonable, when they were about to take it down, first to take out the ark, table, &c. which was the business of the Kohathites to carry; next to take down the curtains, coverings, and hangings for the tabernacle and court, and the doors thereof, which were the charge of the Merarites; wherefore, in this order the sum out of each of them fit for business were ordered to be numbered.

Verse 3. From thirty years old and upward even until fifty years old,.... This is the full time of the Levites service, and the prime season of man's life for business; at thirty years of age he is at his full strength, and when fifty it begins to decline: it is said in the Misnah {x}, "a son of thirty years for strength," upon which one of the commentators {y} makes this remark, that the Levites set up the tabernacle and took it down, and loaded the wagons, and carried on their shoulders from thirty years and upwards: thus both John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, and Christ himself, entered into their ministry at this age:

all that enter into the host; army or warfare; for though the Levites were exempted from going forth to war, yet their service was a sort of warfare; they were a camp of themselves about the tabernacle, and part of their work was to watch and guard it, that it was neither defiled nor robbed; in allusion to this, the ministry of the word is called a warfare, and ministers of the Gospel good soldiers of Christ, and their doctrines weapons of warfare, 1 Timothy 1:18; some interpret this of the troop, company, or congregation of the Levites, which a man of thirty years of age was admitted into for business:

to do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation; not in the sanctuary, either in the holy place or in the most holy place, where they were never allowed to enter, or do any business in, such as sacrificing, burning incense, &c. but in that part of it which was called "the tabernacle of the congregation," or where the people assembled on occasion, and that was the court, which was so called, as Jarchi observes on Exodus 29:32.

{x} Pirke Abot, c. 5. sect. 21. {y} Bartenora in Pirke Abot, c. 5. sect. 21.

Verse 4. This [shall be] the service of the sons of Kohath, in the tabernacle of the congregation,.... What follows, Numbers 4:4;

[about] the most holy things; which Aben Ezra interprets only of the ark, which was indeed a most holy thing, and stood in the most holy place; but there were other holy things, in the care of which the service of the Kohathites lay; as the shewbread table, the candlestick, and the altars of incense and burnt offering, and the vail, and the ministering: vessels, which Jarchi reckons with it, as more holy than all other things.

Verse 5. And when the camp setteth forward,.... Upon the cloud's removing and the trumpets blowing:

Aaron shall come, and his sons; into the holy place:

and they shall take down the covering vail: the vail that divided between the holy and the most holy place, which covered all in the holy of holies out of sight:

and cover the ark of testimony with it; together with the mercy seat and cherubim on it, that they might not be seen nor touched by the Levites when they carried them. Now though the high priest himself might not go into the most holy place but once a year, on the day of atonement, yet on this occasion, when the tabernacle was to be taken down, and the things in it to be removed, both he and his sons might enter without danger; since, as Bishop Patrick observes, the divine Majesty was gone from thence in the cloud which gave the signal for the motion of the camp, and the taking down of the tabernacle.

Verse 6. And shall put thereon the covering of badgers' skins,.... Not that which covered the tabernacle, for that was committed to the Gershonites, Numbers 4:25; but a covering made of these on purpose for the present use, to preserve the ark from rain and dust; and this covering was put not immediately upon the ark, but upon the other coverings that were over the ark, and so preserved the vail as well as the ark:

and shall spread over [it] a cloth wholly of blue; it is a matter of question, whether this was over the covering of badgers' skins also; if over the latter, as one would think it should be, by the order of the text, how could that be a shelter from the rain and dust, which seems to be the use of it, and therefore should be the outermost, as one of the same kind was the outermost covering of the tabernacle? Aben Ezra observes, there were some that say it was over the covering of badger's skin, but it is right in mine eyes, says he, that it was spread over the covering vail; if indeed it was for the sake of honour and dignity, the first is right, but the badger's skin was on account of rain and dust:

and shall put in the staves thereof: having been removed while the ark was covering, as Aben Ezra observes, or otherwise they always remained in their rings, and were never taken out, Exodus 25:14; but on this occasion they might, and then be put in again for the carrying of the ark, which was the use of them; though he also remarks, that there are some that say the sense is, they put the staves on the shoulders of them that carried it, which is not a despicable sense; unless rather it is to be understood of putting the staves through holes made in the coverings of the ark, and disposing and fitting them in them, for the better carriage of it.

Verse 7. And upon the table of shewbread they shall spread a cloth of blue,.... That that also might not be seen nor touched by the Levites:

and put thereon the dishes, and the spoons, and the bowls, and the covers to cover withal: all which belonged to the shewbread table; the use of which, See Gill on "Ex 25:29"; these seem to be put not immediately upon the table, but upon the blue cloth spread over the table:

and the continual bread shall be thereon: the shewbread is called "continual," because it was always on the table; for while the one was removing by a set of priests, which had stood a week, new loaves were placed by another set of priests: this bread seems at this time to be placed also upon the table, spread with the blue cloth; and from hence it appears, that the Israelites had the shewbread in the wilderness; for the making of which they might be supplied with corn from the neighbouring countries, though they themselves needed not any, being daily fed with manna.

Verse 8. And they shall spread upon them a cloth of scarlet,.... Upon the dishes and other vessels belonging to the shewbread table, and on the shewbread itself:

and cover the same with a covering of badgers' skins; this was clearly the outward covering, and seems to confirm the observation made in Numbers 4:6; that the same sort of covering was the outermost covering of the ark:

and shall put in the staves thereof; which belonged to the table, and were made to carry it with on occasion, from place to place; see Exodus 25:27; and the same phrase being used as here of the staves of the ark in Numbers 4:6; seems to confirm the sense of them there, that they were taken out and put in upon this occasion, though otherwise fixed.

Verse 9. And they shall take a cloth of blue, and cover the candlestick of the light, and his lamps,.... Which had lamps in it, and were continually lighted, and gave light in the holy place:

and his tongs, and his snuff dishes, and all the oil vessels thereof,
wherewith they minister unto it; by supplying the lamps with oil, and snuffing and trimming them.

Verse 10. And they shall put it, and all the vessels thereof, within a covering of badgers' skins,.... Which here also was the outermost covering; the ark and the shewbread table had three coverings, but the candlestick only two, they being more sacred than that, especially the ark:

and shall put [it] upon a bar; the word "mot" perhaps signifies a kind of mat or mattress, on which the candlestick and its vessels, bundled together in the covering of the badgers' skins, were laid and carried between men on staves; and so the Septuagint render the word "staves"; as does the Targum of Onkelos.

Verse 11. And upon the golden altar they shall spread a cloth of blue,.... The altar of incense, which was overlaid with gold, and therefore called a golden one, to which the allusion is in Revelation 8:3;

and cover it with a covering of badgers' skins; after the cloth of blue was spread upon it:

and shall put to the staves thereof; into the rings, both made to bear and carry it, upon occasion, from place to place.

Verse 12. And they shall take all the instruments of ministry,
wherewith they minister in the sanctuary,.... The garments in which the priests, ministered in the sanctuary, which were laid up in proper places, and which they only wore when in service:

and put [them] in a cloth of blue, and cover them with a covering of badgers' skins; all wrapped up in one bundle:

and shall put [them] on a bar; the same sort of carriage on which the candlestick and its vessels were borne, See Gill on "Nu 4:10."

Verse 13. And they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth thereon. Having cleared the holy of holies, and the holy place, they were to come forth from thence into the court of the tabernacle, where stood the altar of burnt offering, which is here meant, and on which sacrifices being daily burnt, there were always ashes to be removed; and which at this time was highly necessary to be done, when the tabernacle was taken down, and all belonging to it to be carried away; and though no mention is made of the fire, which was always burning on it, it was doubtless preserved, and care was taken for the carrying it along with the altar, or in a separate vessel from it. Bishop Patrick supposes it might be carried upon the grate.

Verse 14. And they shall put upon it all the vessels thereof,.... Upon the altar covered with a blue cloth; on that were to be put everything belonging to the altar:

wherewith they minister about it; the priests, when they offered sacrifice on it:

[even] the censers, the fleshhooks, and the shovels, and the basins, all the vessels of the altar; of which see Exodus 27:3;

and they shall spread upon it a covering of badgers' skins: to prevent the rains falling upon them, which being all of brass, would be apt to tarnish:

and put to the staves of it; which were made to bear and carry it on such an occasion as this, Exodus 27:6. No mention is made of the laver, though there is both in the Septuagint and Samaritan versions, which add, "and they shall take a purple cloth and cover the layer, and its base, and shall put it into a covering of skin of a blue colour, and put it upon bearers:" but perhaps the reason why this is not mentioned is, because it was carried uncovered; the mystery of which, Ainsworth conjectures, was this, that it might be a lively representation of the grace of God in Christ, continuing and opened as an ever springing fountain, where always God's elect, having faith in him, may wash and purge themselves in the blood of Christ unto forgiveness of sin sanctification of the Spirit, and salvation; see Zechariah 13:1.

Verse 15. And when Aaron and his sons had made an end of covering the sanctuary,.... Not the holy place, nor the most holy place, for these were not covered by them; but "the holy things" in them, as the Septuagint version, the ark, shewbread table, &c. and all "the vessels of the sanctuary"; all appertaining to those holy things, which are before mentioned. Jarchi interprets the "sanctuary," or the "holiness," of the ark and altar,

and all the vessels of the sanctuary; of the candlestick and the instruments of ministry:

as the camp is to set forward; which made the covering of them necessary, in order to their being carried as that moved:

after that the sons of Kohath shall come to bear [it]; or rather them, all the holy things, and their vessels, and that upon their shoulders:

but they shall not touch [any] holy thing; even in bearing them, neither the ark nor any other, only the staves and bar, on which they were carried: lest they die; by the immediate hand of God:

these [things are] the burden of the sons of Kohath, in the tabernacle of the congregation; the above things, the ark, &c. which they were to bear on their shoulders, and not make use of wagons to carry them.

Verse 16. And to the office of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest,
[pertaineth] the oil for the light,.... The following things, to bear them, according to some Jewish writers; but rather it was to give the oil for the light, that is, the vessels, and so the vessels of the oil to the sons of the Kohathites; agreeably to which are the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan, who paraphrase the words, "and that which was delivered to Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, the oil for the light, &c." And indeed the words, as they are in the Hebrew text, may be rendered, "and the oversight of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, shall be, or "let it be," the oil for the light, &c. {z};" the same word being so rendered in a latter clause of this same text: he had the inspection of these, and on him lay to see to it, that these were carried by the Kohathites, the oil for the light of the lamps in the candlestick; of which see Exodus 27:20;

and the sweet incense: to burn on the altar of incense, Exodus 30:34;

and the daily meat offering; offered with the lambs morning and evening, Exodus 29:40;

and the anointing oil; with which Aaron and his sons were anointed, the tabernacle and all its vessels, Exodus 30:23;

[and] the oversight of all the tabernacle, and of all that therein is,
in the sanctuary, and in the vessels thereof: the former, the oil for the light, &c. were his immediate oversight and care; but the oversight of these by his brother Ithamar, according to the Jewish writers.

{z} So Montanus, Tigurine version, Piscator.

Verse 17. And the Lord spake unto Moses, and unto Aaron,.... And gave them a very solemn and awful charge about this affair of the Kohathites, it being a very hazardous one they were employed in:

saying; as follows.

Verse 18. Cut ye not off the tribe of the families of the Kohathites from among the Levites. Or give no occasion, as the Targum of Jonathan; or be not the cause of their cutting off, as Jarchi, through negligence or inadvertency of theirs, in packing up the above things, and delivering them to them.

Verse 19. But thus do unto them,.... As after directed:

that they may live and not die; live long, and not die a sudden and violent death:

when they approach unto the most holy things; the ark, the shewbread table, &c. to take them up and carry them:

Aaron and his sons shall go in; into the holy and most holy places:

and appoint them in everyone to his service, and to his burden; what everyone shall do, and how they shall take them up, and bear them.

Verse 20. But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered,.... They were not to be present while they were packing up, test they should see any of them with their eyes; they were not to go in until they were quite covered out of sight; which may signify the hiding of the mysteries of grace in those things under the former dispensation, when even the Levites themselves were not admitted to a sight of them; see Ephesians 3:4;

lest they die; by the immediate hand of God.

Verse 21. And the Lord spake unto Moses,.... Though Aaron is not mentioned here, he was concerned in taking the sum of the Gershonites, as well as of the Kohathites, as appears from Numbers 4:41;

saying; as follows.

Verse 22. Take also the sum of the sons of Gershon,.... As well as of the sons of Kohath; for though Gershon was Levi's eldest son, yet his posterity were not excused from the service of the tabernacle, and bearing things of it in journeying:

throughout the houses of their fathers, by their families; all in their several houses, and in the several families in those houses, that were of the age next mentioned, were to be numbered.

Verse 23. From thirty years old and upward, until fifty years old, shalt thou number them,.... Take an account how many there are of that age, and so fit for service {a}; See Gill on "Nu 4:3";

to do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation; as the rest of the Levites; see Numbers 4:3;

{a} abu abul "ad militandum militiam," Montanus, Drusius.

Verse 24. This [is] the service of the families of the Gershonites, to serve, and for burdens. The former of these phrases Aben Ezra interprets of setting up the tabernacle, making the bread (the shewbread), slaying (the sacrifices), and keeping, that is, watching and guarding, the tabernacle; and the latter of what they did when journeying, bearing and carrying the things assigned to them, afterwards mentioned.

Verse 25. And they shall bear the curtains of the tabernacle,.... The ten curtains of fine linen, Exodus 26:1;

and the tabernacle of the congregation; the curtains of goats' hair made for a tent over it, as Jarchi, see Exodus 26:7;

his covering the covering of rams skins dyed red, Exodus 26:14;

and the covering of the badgers' skins that [is] above upon it; over all the rest:

and the hanging for the door of the tabernacle of the congregation; the eastern vail, as Jarchi calls it, which was for the door of the tent that led into the tabernacle, the holy place, Exodus 26:36.

Verse 26. And the hangings of the court,.... Which made the great court that surrounded the tabernacle, Exodus 27:9;

and the hanging for the door of the gate of the court; the eastern gate that led into the court, an hanging of twenty cubits, Exodus 27:16;

which [is] by the tabernacle, and by the altar round about; that is, which hangings that formed the court, and were round about the tabernacle, and the altar of burnt offering; See Gill on "Ex 26:36";

and their cords; which fastened the hangings to pins or stakes fixed in the ground to keep them tight, that they might not be moved to and fro with the wind:

and all the instruments of their service; in the court, as the tables on which the sacrifices were laid, and the hooks, and cords, and pins, on which they were hung and fastened, as Aben Ezra; see Ezekiel 40:39;

and all that is made for them; for the vessels of service, or for the tabernacle, or the altar, as the same writer intimates:

so shall they serve; by bearing them and carrying them.

Verse 27. At the appointment of Aaron and his sons,.... As they shall order and direct:

shall be all the service of the sons of the Gershonites; everyone of them was to take their share, as Aaron and his sons should appoint them:

in all their burdens, and in all their service; what each of them should carry, and in what they should perform duty:

and ye shall appoint to them in charge all their burdens; charge them carefully to keep all that were committed to them to bear, that none be lost, not a pin nor a cord.

Verse 28. This [is] the service of the families of the sons of Gershon,.... Which they should execute when the camp and tabernacle were in motion:

in the tabernacle of the congregation in the court; where they should take up their burdens, or which lie in things respecting the tabernacle; this was the part they were to be employed in, namely, in taking care of the hangings of the tabernacle, &c.

and their charge [shall be] under the hand of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest; the things committed to their care were delivered by him to them, and they were under his inspection and direction.

Verse 29. As for the sons of Merari,.... The third and youngest son of Levi:

thou shalt number them after their families, by the house of their fathers; which is the form of expression used of them all; See Gill on "Nu 4:2."

Verse 30. From thirty years old and upward,.... The Septuagint version here, and in Numbers 4:3, renders it, from twenty five years old and upward, agreeable to Numbers 8:24, at the which age the Levites went into the tabernacle, to wait and to learn their business, but they did not enter upon it till thirty;

even unto fifty years old shalt thou number them; at which age they were discharged from business:

everyone that entereth into the service, to do the work of the tabernacle of the congregation; See Gill on "Nu 4:3."

Verse 31. And this [is] the charge of their burden,.... What should be committed to their care and charge, and they should bear and carry:

according to all their service in the tabernacle of the congregation; which was assigned to them as their part, and which was very heavy and cumbersome, and therefore they had wagons allowed them, Numbers 7:8;

the boards of the tabernacle, and the bars thereof, and the pillars thereof, and sockets thereof; all these belonged to the holy and to the most holy place; see Exodus 26:15.

Verse 32. And the pillars of the court round about, and their sockets, and their pins, and their cords,.... These belonged to the court of the tabernacle; the pillars were what the hangings were hung upon, and the sockets, into which the pillars were set, and the and cords, with which the hangings were fastened; see Exodus 27:9;

with all their instruments, and with all their service; whatever else were used in, and served for the support of this part of the tabernacle:

and by name ye shall reckon the instruments of the charge of their burden; everything, even the least that were committed to their charge, and they were to bear and carry, either they themselves, or in wagons, were to be mentioned by name; and not only every board, pillar, and socket, were to be told out to them, and particularly named, how many they were, to what they belonged, from whence they were taken, and where to be replaced; but every pin, and cord, and the use of them, that so when they came to set up the tabernacle again, there might be nothing wanting in its place to secure it, and make it as firm as at first: such particular notice and care does God take of all his people, and Christ of all committed to him, and so should ministers of the word of all that are their charge, who must one day give an account to God, Hebrews 13:17.

Verse 33. This [is] the service of the families of the sons of Merari,.... The Mahlites and Mushites, namely, the service before observed, the particulars of which are given:

according to all their service in the tabernacle of the congregation; agreeably to what was allotted to them in that part of the tabernacle they were concerned in:

under the hand of Ithamar the son of Aaron the priest; who had the oversight of these as well as of the Gershonites, as Eleazar had of the Kohathites; though as Eleazar was the chief of the tribe of Levi, it is thought that Ithamar acted under him, Numbers 3:32.

Verse 34. And Moses and Aaron, and the chief of the congregation, numbered the sons of the Kohathites,.... Perhaps these chiefs were the same with those who were concerned with Moses and Aaron in numbering all the tribes whose names were given, Numbers 1:5; the Kohathites are begun with, according to the divine direction, and then the Gershonites and Merarites in their order; and in Numbers 4:34 is only an account of the numbering of each of them, as ordered by the Lord, and this account is expressed in the same terms in them all; there remains nothing to be observed but the particular sums of each of them, the number of the Kohathites from thirty years old even to fifty, men able and fit for business, were 2750, Numbers 4:36; whereas their number from a month old were 8600, Numbers 3:28; so that not a third part of them were at an age for service: the number of the Gershonites were 2630, Numbers 4:40; whose number of males in all were 7500, Numbers 3:22; so that they were rather more than a third part who were able-bodied then and fit for business; and the number of the Merarites were 3200, Numbers 4:44; and as the number of males of a month old and upwards were 6200, Numbers 3:34; there were more than half of them able and fit men for service; in which, as Ainsworth observes, may be seen the wisdom of divine Providence, that whereas the service of the Kohathites and Gershonites were the lightest, and what was committed to them the easiest of carriage, they had the fewer hands of able men to be employed, though their numbers of individuals were the greatest; and the Merarites, who had the smallest number of males, yet having the heaviest work to do in carrying burdens, loading and unloading wagons, were superior to the rest in their number of able bodied men; and thus God makes good his promise, that as the day of his people is, their strength shall be; whatever work and service God calls men to, he will fit them for it: the sum total of the Levites, in the several divisions of them, who were between: thirty and fifty years of age, in which they performed their office, was 8580, Numbers 4:48; a small number, as the above writer observes, of such as warred the spiritual warfare in the sanctuary of God, when the tribe of Judah afforded 74,600 for the outward warfare.

after their families, and after the house of their fathers; See Gill on "Nu 4:2."

Verse 35. From thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 36. And those that were numbered of them by their families,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 37. These [were] they that were numbered of the families of the Kohathites,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 38. And those that were numbered of the sons of Gershon,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 39. From thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 40. Even those that were numbered of them,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34";

Verse 41. These [are] they that were numbered of the families,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34";

Verse 42. And those that were numbered of the families of the sons of Merari,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34";

Verse 43. From thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 44. Even those that were numbered of them after their families,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 45. These [be] those that were numbered of the families of the sons of Merari,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34";

Verse 46. All those that were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the chief of Israel numbered,.... See Gill on "Nu 3:34."

Verse 47. From thirty years old and upward even unto fifty years old,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 48. Even those that were numbered of them,.... See Gill on "Nu 4:34."

Verse 49. According to the commandment of the Lord, they were numbered by the hand of Moses,.... Aaron and the chief of the congregation of Israel assisting it:

everyone according to his service; called in Numbers 4:47 "the service of the ministry," or "service of service," which Jarchi interprets of that part of the service of the Levites, which lay in singing the song with cymbals and harps; which, he says, was a service to another service; though it seems to be better explained, by Chaskuni, of their taking down and setting up of the tabernacle, which was a service incumbent on all the Levites:

and according to his burden: called "the service of the burden," Numbers 4:47; which the last mentioned writer restrains to the ark, table, candlestick, and altars, which the Kohathites carried on their shoulders; but may be extended to what each of them bore and carried when journeying:

thus were they numbered of him, as the Lord commanded Moses; from thirty years old to fifty, as Jarchi observes; for that was the order given to Moses by the Lord, which he punctually attended to, as a faithful servant in the house of God.