Moses counts the people by command of the LORD. It is as it is in Numbers 1. It is a sin to count the people without explicit command of God. In this sin David is caught (1Chr 21:1-71Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.2So David said to Joab and to the princes of the people, “Go, number Israel from Beersheba even to Dan, and bring me [word] that I may know their number.”3Joab said, “May the LORD add to His people a hundred times as many as they are! But, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? Why does my lord seek this thing? Why should he be a cause of guilt to Israel?”4Nevertheless, the king’s word prevailed against Joab. Therefore, Joab departed and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem.5Joab gave the number of the census of [all] the people to David. And all Israel were 1,100,000 men who drew the sword; and Judah [was] 470,000 men who drew the sword.6But he did not number Levi and Benjamin among them, for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.7God was displeased with this thing, so He struck Israel.). He wanted to know the power of his people, as if God is not his power.
The command to count is given “after the plague”. The plague of the previous chapter is the last great plague that struck the people as ‘wilderness people’. The wilderness journey is over. They are about to enter the land. The unfaithfulness of the previous chapter has shown that all wilderness experiences have not changed the heart of man. Nor has God’s righteousness changed, as He has shown through the plague.
Yet He has not destroyed all of them, but in grace has kept them alive. They can be counted. But a new generation is counted. At the same time, however, the new generation is linked to the generation that “came out of the land of Egypt”. Other persons make up the people, but they remain the same people.
The expression “after the plague” marks a turning point in the history of the book of Numbers. A new generation is counted. The great question that arises from this is: Will this new people serve God more faithfully than the people who died in the wilderness?
At the beginning of the journey the people are counted (Num 1:1-51Then the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying,2“Take a census of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ households, according to the number of names, every male, head by head3from twenty years old and upward, whoever [is able to] go out to war in Israel, you and Aaron shall number them by their armies.4With you, moreover, there shall be a man of each tribe, each one head of his father’s household.5These then are the names of the men who shall stand with you: of Reuben, Elizur the son of Shedeur;). It is a great encouragement to know that, before we begin our ‘wilderness journey’, God counted us head by head. God knows every member of His people by name. In the wilderness each member has his own exercises, but each member may know that God will take care during the whole journey. The census here is the census at the end of the journey. None of those counted in Numbers 1 is alive here, except Caleb and Joshua (verse 6565For the LORD had said of them, “They shall surely die in the wilderness.” And not a man was left of them, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.). This means that a totally different people are counted than in Numbers 1.
They are numbered because the land will be given to them (verse 5353“Among these the land shall be divided for an inheritance according to the number of names.). The big difference between the two censuses is that the census of Numbers 1 is done in view of the upcoming wilderness journey, while the census here is done in view of the upcoming entry into the promised land to take possession of the heritage. Because there will be a battle to take possession of the inheritance, again “whoever is able to go out to war in Israel” is counted.
In both cases, the census is a great encouragement. During the census, he or she personally stands before God. This gives each member the impression that God has personal attention for him. This awareness gives strength to the task ahead, both for the wilderness and for the land.
The census does not only take place for all those who are able to go out to war, but also “by their fathers’ households”, the latter being the most important one because this is mentioned first. In the wilderness, battle is necessary to survive. In the land, battle is needed to conquer the inheritance. Once that inheritance has been taken, God’s intention is that every family should enjoy the inheritance. The blessings of the land are particularly enjoyed as a family of God, that is, together with our brothers and sisters, on occasions that are given for it. God’s family consists of little children, young men and fathers (1Jn 2:12-1812I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake.13I 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.15Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.16For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.17The world is passing away, and [also] its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.18Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.).
We can enjoy it when we do personal Bible study, we can also enjoy it as elderly or young people among each other. But according to God’s intention, the most is enjoyed when the whole family comes together. The fact that the emphasis in the census is more on the families than on the militant men is also evident, for example, from verse 3333Now Zelophehad the son of Hepher had no sons, but only daughters; and the names of the daughters of Zelophehad were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah and Tirzah., which also mentions women.
A comparison between the counts of Numbers 1 and Numbers 26 shows the following far-away difference:
Tribe Num 1 Num 26 +/-
Reuben 46,500 43,730 -2,270
Simeon 59,300 22,200 -37,100
Gad 45,650 40,500 -5,150
Judah 74,600 76,500 +1,900
Issachar 54,400 64,300 +9,900
Zebulun 57,400 60,500 +3,100
Ephraim 40,500 32,500 -8,000
Manasseh 32,200 52,700 + 20,500
Benjamin 35,400 45,600 +10,200
Dan 62,700 64,400 +1,700
Asher 41,500 53,400 +11,900
Naphtali 53,400 45,400 -8,000
Total 603,550 601,730 -1,820
Levi 22,100 23,000 +900