NUMBERING THE PEOPLE
A Sermon by Rev. Daniel W. Heinrichs
Preached in Boynton Beach, Florida August 5, 1990
“And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tabernacles of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying: ‘Take a census of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male individually, from twenty years old and above, all who are able to go to war in Israel. You and Aaron shall number them by their armies ” (Numbers 1: 1 – 3).
Numbers is the fourth of the books commonly known as the “Five Books of Moses.” It recounts a variety of things which befell the Children of Israel during their wanderings in the wilderness. The second book of Moses, called Exodus, takes the Israelites as far as Mount Sinai and includes the giving of the Ten Commandments and many other laws and statutes which were given from Mount Sinai, concluding with the building of the Tabernacle. The third book, Leviticus, follows. It contains a collection of ritualistic and other laws, especially as they relate to the Levites and priests. It contains no historical events. The fourth book, Numbers, again takes up the history of Israel when they were about to leave the plains of Sinai.
Since the first thing mentioned in the book of Numbers, in preparation for their journeying in the wilderness, is a census of the people, and since a second census is recorded at the end of the book when they were encamped on the plains of Moab in preparation for entering the promised land, we have, in English translations, followed the Greek translations in calling the book “Numbers.”
The Hebrews, on the other hand, following their custom of designating the name of each book by the first word or words occurring in it, or by some distinguishing word in the first verse, call it Bemidhbar, meaning “in the wilderness.” This, too, is an appropriate name, since it is an account of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. In the internal sense it is an account of the obscure groping of the human mind in its search for heaven.
The immediate purpose of this census was to determine the military strength of the Israelites – counting the males from twenty years old and above, all that were able to go to war. It was natural that they should do this before undertaking the hazardous journey in the wilderness, where they were likely to meet many enemies far more powerful than themselves. In addition, it would help them to determine the order of their marching, and the organization of their encampment around the tabernacle.
The number of men, not counting women and children, was 603,550. We would recall here the Lord’s promise to Abraham over 400 years earlier that his seed would be as the stars of the heaven for multitude. If the women and children were included in this census there would have been over a million people.
This census was permitted in the law given through Moses with the stipulation that each one numbered should give “an offering to the Lord. The rich shall not give more, and poor shall not give less, than half a shekel, when they give an offering to the Lord, to make an atonement for your souls” (Exodus 30:15).
In numbering the people who could go to war the Israelites were thinking of physical warfare and of their military power. In the spiritual sense it relates to spiritual combats, and the conquering of evil desires and false ideas which occupy the natural mind of man. The beginning of this long difficult journey in the wilderness represents the state of an adult beginning the spiritual journey along the pathway of regeneration.
The person knows, in a general way, the Lord’s commandments – the law had already been given from Mount Sinai – but many evil desires arising from selfish loves and many false ideas arising from proprial conceits must be removed before the person can be prepared to dwell in the heavenly Canaan. The particular states of good and truth which alone can conquer these evils and falsities are represented by the numbers of the various tribes recorded in this chapter.
The people were counted by their tribes before setting out on this journey. This means that the Lord, at the beginning of every person’s regeneration, orders the interiors of the mind – arranges it in heavenly order in preparation for the combats that the person will inevitably face along the way. The Lord foresees all the spiritual trials which will beset a person in the course of regeneration, and so disposes the interiors of the mind from earliest infancy that the person may have the ability to withstand every trial that he may encounter; and He provides that the person will not undergo any trial greater than he can bear. For to number is to bring into order – here to bring into heavenly order -the interior things of a person’s spirit.
By ordering the spiritual mind of man the Lord also provides that He may have a dwelling place within the person, so that by His presence He may sustain the person and overcome the evil spirits who attack. No one can conquer the forces of hell by and of himself; their malignant power is so great and their secret operation so subtle that a person has nothing of his own to withstand them. Left to himself, the person would be completely overwhelmed. But we can cooperate. We can order our external minds and lives according to Divine laws of order so that the Lord can form the interiors of our minds into a heavenly order, and then the presence of heaven within us can repel the attacks of the hells.
The acknowledgment that the order and arrangement of the goods and truths which a person receives are from the Lord alone is represented by the half shekel which every individual man, rich and poor alike, had to offer to the Lord at the time of the census. This acknowledgment is a prerequisite to regeneration, for the denial of it involves a person’s claiming for oneself the power to overcome the hells and to merit heaven from one’s own strength and goodness. Such an attitude obstructs the influx from heaven and leaves a person at the mercy of the hells.
This is what was involved in the sin of David. He numbered the people without the payment of the half shekel. He did this at the end of his reign when he had conquered all the surrounding nations and Israel occupied a prominent place among the nations. The implication in the literal sense is that in counting his valiant warriors and in wishing to enumerate the great strength of his army, he was taking credit for his victories rather than humbly acknowledging that it was the Lord’s presence with Israel which had made them a mighty nation. This is the sin into which we all may fall if we do not acknowledge in our worship and in our lives that we receive power from the Lord alone to overcome the hidden evils of our inheritance.
Such an acknowledgment, however, means nothing unless we, as of ourselves, use the power which the Lord freely gives us. That is, we must make a constant and continuing effort to live according to the Lord’s commandments so that our minds may be brought into harmony with Divine order. If we do this we will repel, reject and overcome those natural desires and thoughts which are contrary to Divine order.
We see an illustration of this in the story of Gideon. He was not permitted to go against the Midianites with the 32,000 men who had been counted, lest Israel claim the victory for itself instead of attributing it to the Lord, saying: “My own hand has saved me” (Judges 7:2). Gideon finally had to reduce his force to 300 men, for the Lord said: “By the 300 men who lapped I will save you, and deliver the Midianites into your hand” (Judges 7:7, emphasis added). The Lord chose this spectacular way to conquer the far superior force of Midian in order to show the Israelites, and indeed us, that it was solely by His presence with them, and His power, that they were able to exist among the far more powerful nations surrounding them.
The spiritual lesson here is that if from our trust in the Lord we intelligently cooperate with Him by observing His laws of order, His church will prevail against all foes, both in the world and in the life of every individual member.
This Divine forming and ordering of the mind from within begins in infancy and continues throughout life. The heavenly states which the angels impress upon the infantile mind remain to mitigate and soften the hardness of selfish loves; it is these remains which are meant by census of those 20 years old and upward.
The fact that the first census took place in the wilderness means that this Divine work is done before we can have any consciousness of it. It is on a plane above our consciousness. This is a wonderful provision of the Divine Providence. It is the way in which the Lord provides that every person, prior to reaching adulthood, may be prepared for regeneration. Furthermore, because of this Divine work, the stubbornness and persistence of our selfish loves, which later become so active, are finally able to be overcome.
While acknowledging that regeneration is the Lord’s work, we must always bear in mind that He can accomplish it with us only by our complete willingness and active cooperation. We must as of ourselves bring our external minds and lives into a state harmonious with, and corresponding to, that inner order which the Lord has established within our spirit, for only then can this Divine operation descend to the plane of consciousness and be effective in our lives.
In this spirit we should humbly pray to the Lord that He will “number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Amen.
Lessons: Numbers 1: 1 – 3, 17 – 19, 44 – 46; 2 Samuel 24:1 – 17; AC 10219:5
10219:5 For by “famine’ is signified a lack and scarcity of the goods and truths of faith and love, because these are signified by bread, food, wheat, barley, oil, and wine, which are lacking while the famine lasts. By “fleeing before enemies” in the internal sense is meant to be pursued by evils and falsities, for those who attribute goods and truths to themselves cannot fight against the evils and falsities which are from hell (n. 9978), and which in the spiritual sense are the enemies before whom is the fleeing, and by whom they are pursued. But by “pestilence” is signified the vastation and consumption of the goods and truths which have been received from infancy (n. 7505). That David chose the pestilence, and that seventy thousand died of it, signified that every truth and good of faith and love would perish with the Israelitish and Jewish nation, which also came to pass, for they did not acknowledge the Lord, from whom nevertheless are all goods and truths. “Three days’ signified to the full, and the same was also signified by the “seventy thousand” men who died.