The book starts with counting and ordering. Counting is proof of ownership. The whole generation counted here perishes in the wilderness under the judgment of God – except Joshua and Caleb. This means that a new generation arrives in Canaan. Being counted for heaven, knowing that our names are recorded there, is something to be happy and grateful for. But we must not forget that God is interested in all our actions, the way we go, the trials and struggles we have. He counts that too.
Thirteen months have passed since the redemption from Egypt and one month has passed since the tabernacle was established (Exo 40:1717Now in the first month of the second year, on the first [day] of the month, the tabernacle was erected.). Applied to us, this means that there has been teaching about salvation, the church as the dwelling place of God and priestly service, as depicted in the tabernacle (Exodus) and the sacrificial service and priestly service (Leviticus). Now comes the order to Moses to count “all the church of the sons of Israel”. The people are seen in their entirety. The picture speaks of spiritual growth and spiritual strength.
The census should be done “by their families, by their fathers’ households, … every male”. Every member of the people must know his origin and where he belongs. Similarly, every believer must know his place in Christ; he must know that he is a child of God and what his spiritual family is, who his brothers and sisters are. “Every male” speaks of putting into practice what someone is in position.
It is about militant men, not children or the elderly. The age of twenty is in many countries the age of military service; the same was true in the Netherlands when military draft still existed. Once someone is in active service, he renounces personal interests and makes his time and strength available to the land. The effectiveness of the service depends on listening to the superiors. Whoever is in service is expected to follow orders without contradicting them (Lk 7:88For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”).
“Head by head” they are counted. In this way each individual is placed before God. Counting shows that the people are not a great mass for God. The individual is not absorbed in the mass. God knows every single one of them. Every person is important to Him. God cannot miss one.
It is great to know that we are counted for heaven, that our names are recorded there (Lk 10:20b20Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.”). But that is not all. The Lord also wants to record our names for the battle on earth. We are counted head by head, which means that we will be aware of the personal connection with the Lord Jesus. To know this is important for every Christian.
In order to explain this personal relationship with God, in order to belong to the numbered ones, the Israelite must be twenty years old. Spiritually applied this means that it takes a certain spiritual maturity to be able to serve as a warrior in the army of God. An end age is not mentioned. A baby in faith is not expected to be a warrior. It is expected of a young man in faith (1Jn 2:13-1413I am writing to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I have written to you, children, because you know the Father.14I have written to you, fathers, because you know Him who has been from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.; cf. 2Tim 2:3-43Suffer hardship with [me], as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.4No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.).
Moses and Aaron count together. Together they are a picture of the Lord Jesus, who is called “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession” (Heb 3:11Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession;). The Lord Jesus speaks on our behalf to God and represents us before God. We have to do with Him. We see in Him the King-Priest (Zec 6:13b13Yes, it is He who will build the temple of the LORD, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.”‘). He knows His own. He knows who He can send out.
All who are counted here will never be able to begin the actual battle – that of the conquest of the land – because, except two, Joshua and Caleb, they will fall in the wilderness (Num 14:2929your corpses will fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me.). Those who are counted at the end of this book, in Numbers 26, form a new generation. But that is not what God is thinking about in this census. As has already been mentioned, the journey to the land should only take eleven days. The fact that it eventually became a journey of forty years has to do with the unfaithfulness of the people.
Yet God uses that time to show more of Himself than we would have known in case of a short journey. The robber on the cross who repents, has only a very small part of his wilderness journey to go. He has not come to know the faithfulness of God in all circumstances of life. He does not have so much to worship God for as someone who, throughout a lifetime, has come to know God’s faithfulness and care in the face of the unfaithfulness that has so often been proven on his part.