The Census (1:1–54)
Under each tribe, all the men were listed by name. God knew each man, each name. It is the same with us. No matter how big our church or organization might be, God knows and values each one of us; we are all “listed by name” as members of His army.
The grand total of men able to serve in the army was 603,5503 (verse 46). This is the same as the figure given in Exodus 38:26, and is in line with the approximate number given in Exodus 12:37. On the basis of this number of men twenty years and older, the total population of Israelites must have been about two million. In addition, there were many non-Israelites who had joined themselves to Israel (Exodus 12:38)—workers of various kinds, servants, even slaves. However, it appears from the census that only true Israelites were eligible to serve in the army.
The fact that the nation of Israel had should have been a roster of honor became begun with seventy individuals in Egypt only four hundred years earlier and had now grown to two million people (Genesis 46:27; Exodus 1:6–7) was a sure sign that God had kept His promise to multiply the descendants of Abraham and Jacob and form them into a great nation (Genesis 12:2). Indeed, God had promised that Abraham’s descendants would eventually be uncountable, like dust, stars and sand (Genesis 13:16; 15:5; 22:17). At the time of the census, therefore, that promise was yet to be fulfilled. However, a day is coming when it will be fulfilled, a day when a greater census will be taken—a day when all God’s people are finally assembled together before His throne (Revelation 7:9).
Lest we suppose that the great army numbered here was soon to be marching forth into victory, we need to remember that every one of them (save two) died ignominiously in the desert; they never reached the promised land. Thus what The tabernacle was thus surrounded by instead a roster of shame, the shame of disobedience and unbelief.4
47–50 The Levites, descendants of Jacob’s third son Levi, were assigned the task of maintaining and transporting the tabernacle of the Testimony5 (verse 50); therefore, they were exempted from military duty.
51–54 The tents of the Levites were to be set up around the tabernacle, partly to allow the Levites to be near their work and partly to discourage non-Levites from getting too close to the tabernacle and thus losing their lives (verses 51,53). No unauthorized or unconsecrated person was to come near the Lord’s dwelling place. The presence of the Lord in the midst of the Israelites’ camp was a great blessing to those who regarded Him with respect and awe; but to those who had no such respect, the Lord’s presence brought punishment and even death (see Exodus 19:9–13; Numbers 4:17–20 and comments).