Beckett: Pastoral Thoughts – The Levites Exempted from the Military Census (Numbers 1:47-54)

But the Levites were not listed along with them by their ancestral tribe. For the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Only the tribe of Levi you shall not list, and you shall not take a census of them among the people of Israel. But appoint the Levites over the tabernacle of the testimony, and over all its furnishings, and over all that belongs to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall take care of it and shall camp around the tabernacle. When the tabernacle is to set out, the Levites shall take it down, and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up. And if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death. The people of Israel shall pitch their tents by their companies, each man in his own camp and each man by his own standard. But the Levites shall camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony.” Thus did the people of Israel; they did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses.

Numbers 1:47-54

At this point, the army of Israel stood to be 603,550 men from 11 of the 12 tribes of Israel. Only the Levites were exempted from the military census. One would think the priests drew the lucky straw, but this was by no means the easy way out. God instructed the Levites to “camp around the tabernacle of the testimony, so that there may be no wrath on the congregation of the people of Israel. And the Levites shall keep guard over the tabernacle of the testimony” (v. 53). It is one thing to protect the bodies of people; it is another thing entirely to protect the souls and bodies of people from the wrath of God!

The priestly tribe had a double duty: (1) by encamping themselves around the tabernacle, it was their responsibility to prevent God’s wrath from falling upon them; and (2) it was their duty to guard and protect the tabernacle itself (v. 51). God reiterates these duties a little later, “They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle” (3:8). Not only did the Levites have to protect Israel from God’s wrath, but they also had to care for the tabernacle in the appropriate way lest they profane it and die (4:15, 18-20), and they had to guard it against Israel’s enemies. Being a priest was by no means the easy way out, and neither is it the easy way out today.

Previously, I wrote that pastors stand in the long line of the Levitical priesthood (Leviticus 4-6) in the sense that they make atonement for the sins of God’s people in the Word and Sacraments. In this way, too, today’s pastor’s stand in the line of the Levitical priesthood as guardians of the holy things of God, being the Word and Sacraments. As guardians of the Word, pastors uphold orthodox doctrine and expostulate any false doctrine and every heresy. They uphold and defend the Sacraments in the same way. It is not just simply to uphold the honour of God but also for the protection of the people under their care, for without the unadulterated doctrines of the Word and elixir of the Sacraments, God’s people cannot have the blessed assurance of God’s promises. Pastors, then, also guard these means of grace and the church herself against the world.

Pastors do this not by taking up arms but simply by right teaching. As Paul commands the pastor Titus, and by extension all pastors, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine… so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour. For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions… Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:1, 10-12, 15). As American citizens, pastors also have the right to defend their congregations against 1st Amendment violations, just as Paul exercised his own rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29).

At best, pastors will be slandered for this work of God. At worst, they will be killed for it. But fear not. Rather, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the Prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

Theology Terms Used

  • Heresy: a false doctrine that jeopardises your salvation (e.g., Jesus is not the Son of God).

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