Sermon Notes: The Meaning of Amen
The dates for Numbers encompass the entire 40 years in the wilderness, following the Exodus in 1440 B.C.—and it extends throughout that 40 year period. The name of the book comes from the fact that it contains the results of two censuses.
To the modern reader, the book can seem like something of a jumble. There are narrative sections, there are random laws, there are census lists, there is the prophetic word given by the pagan prophet Balaam, and though he was a true prophet, he was not a true man. But there is a structure to the whole thing.
“And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived” (Num. 21:5– 9).
Summary of the Text
The two census lists are given prior to two invasions, one abortive and one more effectual. The results of the censuses are roughly the same—around 600,000 fighting men. The people traveled first from Egypt to Sinai, and from Sinai to Kadesh. To invade Canaan from the south would be more natural, and Kadesh was that place. But the people gave way to fear in response to the negative report of the ten spies, and then when they attempted to invade, they were ignominiously defeated. But by the end of the book, they are poised to invade Canaan from the east, across the Jordan, from the plains of Moab. The first travel narrative is found in 9:15-14:45 and the second is found in 20:1-22.
One theme of this book has to do with leadership, and challenges to that leadership that arose. You would think that someone who had wrecked Egypt, divided the Red Sea, and drowned Pharaoh, would have a secure spot as a leader. But not so with Moses (16-17). Selfish ambition always blindly takes what the grace of God has given as a starting point.
While Korah’s rebellion was a big deal, there were also challenges to the leadership of Moses that were a little closer to home. Numbers 12 tells us that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of a “Cushite woman” he had married. This is a bit obscure, but Josephus tells us the back story, and it might even be true. When Moses was still a prince of Egypt, he once besieged a city in Ethiopia named Saba. The queen of that city fell in love with Moses from the city wall, and offered to surrender the city if he married her, which he did. If that were the case, and this woman belatedly showed up in the Israelite camp in the wilderness one day, one can easily imagine how it would disrupt the organizational flow chart, and not to Miriam’s liking.
Certain things would defile an Israelite ritually, things like childbirth, or a woman’s period, or touching a dead body. They were not moral issues, but they were still designed to teach us holiness. This, not that. Here, not there. Think of them as a gigantic audio/ visual aid. We needed this kind of help (over centuries) to teach us the concept of holiness, walking us toward the concept of ethical holiness, toward the idea of righteousness.
In the sacrifice of the heifer, the priest would burn (among a few other things) the fat of the heifer and some cedar wood (Num. 19:5-6). This made the priest unclean (Num. 19:7). Then a man who was clean (Num. 19:9) would gather up the ashes, and place them outside the camp in a cleanplace, where it would be used by the Israelites in the waters of cleansing. Now soap can be manufactured from wood ash and animal tallow. So the manufacture of soap made you unclean, but the use of it made you clean. Remember what I said about germs. Ritual cleansing also resulted in better hygiene. Cleanliness is next to godliness.
This is the lesson pointed out in Hebrews. “For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:13–14).
Balaam and the Star
Numbers also contains the Balaam story. The New Testament tells us that Balaam was an unrighteous man (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14), and the Israelites killed Balaam when they invaded (Josh 13:22). Piecing the story together, Balaam was a true prophet, but not a true man. He refused to prophesy against Israel, but was apparently the one who gave the king of Moab the shrewd but ungodly advice to use sex against Israel as a weapon. This resulted in the great apostasy at Baal-Peor.
At the same time, we should look carefully at Balaam’s prophecy. “I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: There shall come a Star out of Jacob, And a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, And shall smite the corners of Moab, And destroy all the children of Sheth” (Num. 24:17). We should at least consider the possibility that the Magi who came from the east were informed, at least in part, by Balaam’s prophecy. Here is a star prophesied by a non-Hebrew prophet, and they came in response to it.
Jesus in Numbers
Even though God commanded that the bronze serpent be made, and those who looked to it in the time of Moses were acting in true faith, the serpent eventually became a snare. It had acquired the name Nehushtan, and Hezekiah rightly had it destroyed (1 Kings 18:4). Nevertheless, it was a type of the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14).
The people were afflicted (because of their grumbling) with the poison of “fiery serpents.” The word here is related to the word seraph, or seraphim. From this, and the description of the heavenly seraphim (Is. 6:2-3), I take these as some kind of poisonous winged serpent—small dragons. An image of one of these serpents was cast in bronze and impaled on a pole. Anyone who looked on their affliction there was healed of their affliction here.
That Christ uses this image to describe Himself on the cross is simply astonishing. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21). When we look at Christ on the cross, we are looking at the crucifixion of all accusation. What is our snake bite? Is it not accusation? Is it not the sting of the law? Is it not the fact that we are guilty? So look there—there is your guilt, there is your condemnation, there is your poison. Look there and be free.
One of the most familiar elements of the Christmas story is the star of Bethlehem. But at the same time, it remains one of the most unknown features of the story—because unlike the wise men, we don’t really look straight at it.
“I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth” (Num. 24:17)
Summary of the Text
As you know, the prophet Balaam was a covetous and sinful man (Jude 11; 2 Pet. 2:15). But at the same time, even though he was not of the nation of Israel, he was a true prophet. The Spirit of the Lord really did come upon him (e.g. Num. 24:2). Balak, king of Moab, had Balaam summoned in order to put a curse on Israel. In spite of everything, the Spirit of the Lord refused to let Balaam prophesy disaster for Israel—it kept coming out as blessing (Micah 6:5). Balak was understandably peeved with Balaam (Num. 24:10), but Balaam calmed him down by giving him some very practical and carnal advice . . . for a fee (Rev. 2:14). The women of Moab enticed the Israelite men into idolatry and fornication, and God dealt with them severely (Num. 25:1-3). Balaam was eventually killed by the Israelites when they invaded the land (Josh. 13:22). Judging from the number of times it is referred to explicitly, both in the Old Testament and the New, this is a very important story. And in the Christmas story, we most likely have an implicit reference to it.
At the end of his exchanges with Balak, Balaam gave the words of our text above, and as a prophecy of blessing for Israel, we should be careful to ask what it means. The first fulfillment of these words came with the reign of King David four hundred years later. He was the one who struck Moab (v. 17), not to mention Edom (v. 18). David was the king who was a type of the great king, the Messiah, the Lord Jesus—so Jesus is the antitype, the final and complete fulfillment of this word. A star shall come out of Jacob and a scepter out of Israel, and He will establish his reign. The scepter would stay with Judah until Shiloh came, and He would be the one who would gather all the people to Himself (Gen. 49:10).
The Wise Men
Balaam was a prophet, but he was not a prophet of Israel. He was from the east, and was of the heathen nations there. The wise men who came to search for Jesus because of the star were also from the east. It is likely that Balaam’s words had been preserved outside of the Hebrew Scriptures—and note how the wise men speak of this (Matt. 2:2). They appear to have much more information than could be gleaned from looking at a star in the sky, even if they were serious astrologers. Balaam had prophesied of a king, one with a scepter. The wise men asked about a king. Balaam had specified that this king would be from Jacob, and the wise men asked about a king of the Jews. Herod, the man they asked about it, was an Edomite, one of the peoples that this prophecy described as being conquered by the coming king. And, most noticeably, Balaam spoke of a star, and the wise men came in response to a star. Incidentally, we don’t know for certain that there were three wise men—that is simply an inference from the three types of gifts they brought (Matt. 2:11).
Led By the Star
One of the reasons we don’t look too closely at what the text says about our star is that it might mess with our modernist cosmology too much. The text says that the star, the same one which they had seen in the east, led them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a distance of about eight miles, and that the star then stood still over the house where Mary and Jesus were (Matt. 2:9, 11). Picture a star leading you to Pullman, and then pointing out a particular house.
Either the wise men were being “led by” the star in some astrological sense, meaning that they were doing some serious math on the back of their camels (also unmentioned in the text, by the way), or a star actually came down into our atmosphere and did some very un-starlike things. But why should this be a surprise? A whole host of stars did the same thing for the shepherds (Luke 2:13).
Not What We Were Expecting
Now if we don’t accept the astrological math option, then that means the star came down into our sky, and stood over a particular house—fifty feet up, say. Does faithfulness to Scripture require us to accept absurdities? That a flaming ball of gas, many times larger than our entire earth, came down into Palestine in order to provide first century mapquest services? And that it did so without incinerating the globe? We need to take a lesson here from our medieval fathers in the faith, brought to us via Narnia. “In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” If we can leave our bodies behind when we go to heaven, why cannot a star leave its body behind to come to earth? But any way you take it, the Christian faith flat contradicts the truncated cosmology of moderns. Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve.
Remember What the Star Meant
Balaam is talking about what will happen to all the tinpot monarchies when the real kingdom arrives, when the true scepter is established. In the book of Revelation, Jesus identifies Himself with His ancestor and subject, King David. He is the root and offspring of David, and He is the bright and morning star (Rev. 22:16). Balaam was talking about what was going to happen in “the latter days” (v. 14), and he is very clear about the rise and fall of nations before the Messiah would come. First, the Amalekites would perish forever (v. 20). After them, the Kenites would go down (v. 22). They would be followed by invaders from Kittim (the Greeks, under Alexander), which is what verse 24 is talking about. But then the Greeks would fade away (v. 24), which is what happened with Rome in the ascendancy. And thus it was that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed (Luke 2:1).
So Caesar gave the command in order to tax the whole world (v. Luke 2:1). The star gave the command that magi from the east would voluntarily come, bearing gifts (Matt. 2:11). Augustus won his throne through a great deal of killing at the battle of Actium. The Lord Jesus won His throne at the battle of Golgotha, where He conquered and crushed the devil by dying. The star in the east, the one the wise men followed, was a star that declared a coming kingdom, a kingdom that will never end. This is the kingdom of the true king, before whom the most magnificent kings in the history of the world were but flickering types and shadows.
The star of Bethlehem is therefore the regal emblem of a scepter, a scepter of neverending glory.