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<062101>JOSHUA 21:1-45 The residence of the Levites. On this occasion it will be the cities which were Divinely appointed them for residence which will engage our attention. Since it has pleased the Lord to devote a whole chapter, and a lengthy one, to the subject, it is evident that — whether or not we can discern it — there must be that in it which is of spiritual importance and practical value for us today. Nor shall we experience any difficulty in ascertaining its central message if we bear in mind that the ministers of the Gospel are the counterparts of the Levites of old. In that chapter we find it recorded that the heads of the tribe of Levi came before the assembled court of Israel and presented their claim for suitable places where they might settle with their families and possessions. Their petition was received favorably, and their request was granted. Forty-eight cities with their suburbs were assigned them — appointed by the “lot,” as had been the case with all the other tribes. “Then came near the heads of the fathers of the Levites unto Eleazar the priest, and unto Joshua the son of Nun, and unto the heads of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel; and they spake unto them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, saying, The Lord commanded by the hand of Moses to give us cities to dwell in, with the suburbs thereof for our cattle. And the children of Israel gave unto the Levites out of their inheritance, at the commandment of the Lord, these cities and their suburbs” ( Joshua 21:1-3).
Aaron was a descendant of Levi, and in his official capacity as the high priest of Israel he foreshadowed the Lord Jesus, who now, as the Son of God consecrated for evermore, is “a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle which the Lord pitched, and not man” ( Hebrews 7:28 — 8:2, and cf. Revelation 15:3-5). The sons of Aaron, by natural generation, are types of Christians who are given to Christ to serve Him ( Numbers 3:63), the brethren of Christ sharing by grace His double title of both king and priest ( Revelation 1:6,7). The priestly sons of Aaron and the ministering Levites were also a figure of the public servants of the Lord in the present dispensation, as is clear from 1 Corinthians 9: “Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (verses 13, 14).
In stating that ministers of the Gospel are present-day counterparts of Israel’s priests and Levites, it must be borne carefully in mind that (in keeping with the radical differences which characterize the old and the new covenants) there are marked features of dissimilarity as well as resemblance between them. It was the failure, or refusal, to recognize that fact which laid the foundation for the Judaizing and paganizing of public Christianity and the erection and development of “mystery Babylon,” with all its sacerdotal and ritualistic pretensions.
While there is, as 1 Corinthians 9:13,14, shows, an analogy in the provision made for the support of the ministers respectively in both dispensations, there is none whatever in the services they render. The priests had no commission to go forth and evangelize (that fell more to the lot of the prophets — Jonah 1:2, etc.), nor is the preacher today called of God to act as an intermediary between others and himself, or in any way to offer satisfaction for their sins — only on the essential ground of his being a Christian (and not in an official character as a clergyman) may he intercede for his brethren or present a sacrifice of praise on their behalf.
Israel’s priests and Levites were, by their birth and calling, nearer to God than were those for whom they acted, and by virtue of their office holier than they. But both nearness to God and sanctification are conferred in Christ, without any distinction, upon all who are called of God unto the fellowship of His Son, so that, fundamentally, saved ministers and the believers to whom they minister are equal before God. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female [and we may add, there is neither clergy nor laity]: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” ( Galatians 3:28). Whatever vital privilege and spiritual dignity Christ purchased for one He secured for all His redeemed alike. It is most important that we should be quite clear upon this point, for it gives the death-blow to all priest-craft. There is absolutely nothing of a sacerdotal character in true Christian ministry, and therefore the whole system of Romanism is antichristian. Again, the Jewish priesthood was restricted to the limits of a single family — the Aaronic — whereas in the selection of those whom He calls to preach the Gospel of His Son God is no respecter of persons, but acts according to His sovereign grace and power.
Stating it in its simplest terms, Joshua 21 sets forth the gracious provision which Jehovah made to meet the temporal needs of the Levites. They were the ones who served Him in the tabernacle and ministered to the congregation in holy things, and as such suitably adumbrated the Divinely called ministers of the Gospel, whose lives are devoted to Christ and His churches. Unlike all the other tribes, no separate portion of Canaan was allotted to the Levites upon the distribution of the land ( Deuteronomy 10:8,9; Joshua 13:14). In like manner, the good soldier of Jesus Christ is forbidden to entangle himself with the affairs of this life ( 2 Timothy 2:3,4), for it would ill become one who was the messenger of heaven to occupy his heart with earthly avocations. He is called upon to practice what he preaches, to be a living exemplification of his sermons, denying all fleshly and worldly lusts, and be “an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” He is required to walk in entire separation from the world, and give himself “wholly” to the things of God and the welfare of souls, that his profiting may appear unto all ( 1 Timothy 4:12,15). What mortification of corrupt affections and inordinate desires of earthly things and what spiritual mindedness are necessary if the preacher is to give a just representation of Him in whose name he ministers.
But though no separate portion of Canaan was to be apportioned to the Levites, that was far from signifying that they must in some way secure their own interests, or that they were left dependent upon the capricious charity of their brethren. It was not the Divine will that they should earn their living by the sweat of the brow, or that they should beg their daily bread. Not so does the Lord treat His beloved servants. He is no Egyptian taskmaster, demanding that they make bricks but refusing to provide them with straw; instead, He is “the God of all grace,” who has promised to supply their every need. Thus it was with the Levites. Full provision was made for their temporal sustenance. The Lord had not only appointed that a liberal part of the heave and wave offerings was to be their food, as well as the best of the oil, and the wine, and the first-fruits, with the tithes of the children of Israel ( Numbers 18:9-19,24); but He had also given a commandment that the other tribes should give unto the Levites, out of their own inheritance, cities to dwell in and the suburbs round about them ( Numbers 35:2-5). In like manner, God has stipulated that those of His people who are indebted to the spiritual ministrations of His servants should, in turn, minister to their temporal subsistence. This is clear from 1 Corinthians 9:13,14, and, though it may be somewhat of a digression, we will take a closer look at that passage.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul was vindicating his apostleship (verse 3), which his traducers denied. They objected that he had not personally seen Jesus Christ (verse 1), as had the twelve. That he did not live like other men, going without the ordinary comforts of life (verse 4), being unmarried (verse 5). That he and his companion Barnabas were obliged to support themselves by their own manual labors (verse 6), and therefore that he knew they were not entitled to count upon the gifts of believers for their sustenance (verse 12). The main drift of his reply was that, though he acted voluntarily on the principle of self-denial, yet that by no means disproved that he was sent of God, or that he had not a right to be maintained by the saints. So far from that being the case, he was clearly and fully warranted in claiming their support. This he demonstrates by a number of plain and irrefutable arguments, educed from a variety of cogent considerations.
Those arguments lay down principles which are applicable to the servants of Christ in all generations, and therefore are pertinent for today, making known as they do the revealed will of God on this practical matter. It therefore behooves the Lord’s people carefully to weigh the same and be regulated by them.
He began by asking, “Have not we power to forbear working?” (verse 6).
The word “power” there signifies right or authority, being used in the same sense as it is in John 1:12. Though in the interrogative form, it has the force of an emphatic affirmative: such is our legitimate prerogative, if we choose to exercise it — to abstain from earning our own living, and to count upon the saints ministering to our bodily needs. This he proceeded to prove by three obvious analogies.
First , this accords with the universally recognized rule: “Who goeth a warfare at any lime at his own charges?” (verse 7): as it is the bounden duty of the State to provide for its defenders, equally so of the churches to care for the soldiers of Christ.
Second , this is in keeping with the well-established principle that the workman is entitled to remuneration: “Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof?”
Third , this is exemplified by the law of nature: “Or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not the milk of the flock?” (verse 7): the husbandman by virtue of his calling has a right to a livelihood from the same. But, conclusive as was such reasoning, the apostle did not conclude at that point.
Paul then proceeded to show that the duty he was contending for — the temporal maintenance of Christ’s servants — was not only required by the law of nations, and the dictates of nature, but was urged by the law of God: “For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn (cf. Deuteronomy 25:4) — an example of the humanity which marks the statutes that God gave to Israel (cf. Exodus 23:19, twice repeated; Deuteronomy 22:6).
Laboring for its owner, the ox was worthy of its food, and must not be deprived thereof. Upon which the apostle asks, “Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith He it altogether [i.e. assuredly] for our sakes?” (verse 9).
If He be so solicitious about the welfare of animals and requires that they be treated justly and kindly, is He indifferent as to how His honored servants be dealt with? Surely not. “For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope, and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (verse 10).
The Mosaic precept was designed in its ultimate application to enforce the principle that labor should have its remuneration, so that men would work more cheerfully. In the next verse the obvious conclusion is drawn. “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?” (verse 11).
If it be right and meet that those who cultivate the earth should be encouraged to do their work diligently by the assurance that they shall themselves be permitted to enjoy the fruit of their labors, then surely those who engage in the far more important and exacting task of toiling in Christ’s vineyard, endeavoring to advance His cause, proclaim His Gospel, feed His sheep, should be recognized and rewarded. The same precept is enforced again in 2 Timothy 2:6, “The husbandman that laboreth must be first partaker of the fruits.” Still more plainly is the exhortation given, “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” ( Galatians 6:6,7).
Thus it is laid down as an unchanging principle that spiritual benefits demand a temporal return. Not that any price can be put upon the invaluable ministry of the Gospel, but that those whom God has set apart to preach it have a just claim for generous compensation. And that not in the way of charity or gratuity, but as a sacred debt — a debt which professing Christians fail to discharge at the peril of their souls. For let none be deceived: if they fail to support the Gospel, God will severely chastise them.
Such a statement as that in verse 11 rebukes and shames any spirit of miserliness or stinginess on the part of those who participate in the privileges of a Gospel ministry but fail to do their fair part in supporting the same, If God’s servants have been used of Him to bestow one class of benefits, is it unreasonable or unequal that they should receive another class of benefits in return? Why, there is no proportion between the one and the other. They dispense that which is spiritual and concerns the eternal interests of the soul, whereas you are required to contribute only that which is material for the needs of the body. If they have faithfully executed their office, will you consider it burdensome to discharge your obvious obligations? Shame on you if you feel that way. Instead, it should be regarded as a holy privilege. “On every principle of commutative justice the minister’s right to a subsistence must be conceded” (Hodge).
But the apostle did not conclude his appeal even at this point, but clinched his argument by citing scriptural proof that God had ordained this very thing. “Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?” (verse 13).
Here the testimony of God’s own institution is quoted, linking all that has been before us in 1 Corinthians 9 with the theme of Joshua 21, for the reference has directly in view the provision made by the Lord for the maintenance of Israel’s priests and Levites. They were supported in their work by the offerings of the people, being Divinely permitted to eat a portion of the animals which had been presented to God in sacrifice. The priests the Levites, and all the tribe of Levi, shall have no part nor inheritance with Israel: they shall eat the offerings of the Lord made by fire, and His inheritance” ( Deuteronomy 18:1, and cf. Numbers 5:9,10). “A part of the animal offered in sacrifice is burned as an offering to God, and a part becomes the property of the priest for his support; and thus the altar and the priest become joint participators of the sacrifice. From these offerings the priests derived their maintenance” (A. Barnes, to whom we are indebted for not a little of the above).
Here, by Divine inspiration, the apostle declares that Christ has made the same ordinance for this dispensation as obtained under the old one. He who provided that those who served Him in His earthly temple should be partakers of the altar has also willed that those who minister His Gospel should be duly cared for. This is not optional, but obligatory. It is a Divine command, which demands obedience. If on the one hand the minister is entitled to support, on the other hand his hearers are not at liberty to withhold the same. It is both a duty and a privilege to comply. It is not a matter of charity, but of right, that the preacher should be compensated for his labors. “The maintenance of ministers is not an arbitrary thing, left purely to the good will of the people, who may let them starve if they please; no, as the God of Israel commanded that Levites should be well provided for, so has the Lord Jesus, the King of the Church, ordained, and a perpetual ordinance it is” (Matthew Henry).
Devotion to the Lord, the spirit of gratitude, the claims of love, and the workings of grace should make the duty a delight. The honor of Christ’s cause, the usefulness of His servants, yes, and the happiness of His people ( Acts 20:35), are bound up in heeding this rule.
A beautiful illustration of compliance with the Divine requirement is found in Philippians 4. There we have the apostle expressing his appreciation and gratitude unto an assembly of the saints for the practical way in which they had manifested their love to him and their fellowship in the Gospel: “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful [solicitous], but ye lacked opportunity” (verse 10).
They were not among that large class of professing Christians who deem themselves willing to profit from a Gospel ministry, but who have very little concern for the temporal welfare of Christ’s servants. On the contrary, they had been mindful of His minister, and as occasion arose and opportunity was afforded they had sent of their substance to him while he was away laboring in other parts. This brought back to his memory similar kindnesses which they had shown him years before: “Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel [when he commenced his evangelistic career], when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only. For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity” (verses 15, 16).
So far from being a case of “out of sight, out of mind,” he was constantly in their thoughts.
During Paul’s extensive travels the Philippians had lost touch with him — though not their interest in him, as the “wherein [i.e. during the lengthy interval] ye were also careful” attests, but they had no “opportunity” to communicate with him. But now that they learned that he was a prisoner in Rome for the Truth’s sake, they sent to him a further token of their affection and esteem by Epaphroditus (verse 18). Most blessed is it to mark the spirit in which the apostle received their gift.
First , while gratefully acknowledging their present (verse 14), he looked above them to the One who had put into their hearts the desire to minister unto him: “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly (verse 10).
Second , he was made happy too on their behalf: “Not because I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account” (verse 17) — it furnished proof of the workings of the spirit of grace within, evidencing that they were in a healthy condition spiritually.
Fourth , he assured them that they would be no losers by caring for him: “But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (verse 19). “Then came near the heads of the fathers of the Levites unto Eleazar the priest, and unto Joshua the son of Nun, and unto the heads of the fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel” ( Joshua 21:1).
There are one or two details here which call for a brief word of explanation.
First , each of the tribes was divided into or was grouped under its leading families: they being the descendants of the original sons — the heads, or chiefs, being designated “fathers.”\\ Second , Eleazar is mentioned here because this transaction involved the use of “the lot,” and he was the one who bore the sacred bag containing the Urim and the Thummim, by which the Divine will was made known.
Joshua was also present as Israel’s commander, to see that all was done in an orderly manner.
Third , the additional reference to “the heads of the fathers of the tribes” clearly intimates that they were now formally assembled as a court, to examine the petitions of claimants and determine their cases.
The careful reader will observe that the chapter opens with the word “Then.” That time-mark is more than a historical reference, pointing an important practical lesson which we do well to heed. Historically, the incident recorded here occurred “when they had made an end of dividing the land for inheritance by their coasts,” and when “the children of Israel gave an inheritance to Joshua the son of Nun” ( Joshua 21:49).
Now the Lord had previously given orders that those cities of refuge (six in number) were to be “among the cities which ye shall give unto the Levites... and to them ye shall add forty and two cities. So all the cities which ye shall give to the Levites shall be forty and eight cities: them shall ye give with their suburbs” ( Numbers 35:6,7).
Those cities of refuge had now been specified ( Joshua 21:7,8), but as yet the remaining forty-two had not been assigned them. “And they spake unto them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan” (verse 2), for that was where the tabernacle was now situated, and therefore the place where the mind of the Lord could be authoritatively ascertained. It is blessed to see that the Levites deferred their appeal until all the other tribes had been provided for, thereby setting an admirable pattern before all the official servants of God, to suppress everything in themselves which has even the appearance of covetousness. How incongruous and reprehensible it is for those who profess to be the ministers of grace and truth to exhibit a mercenary or greedy demeanor! It was “an instance of their humility, modesty, and patience (and Levites should be examples of these and other virtues) that they were willing to be served last, and they fared never the worse for it. Let not God’s ministers complain if at any time they find themselves postponed in men’s thoughts and cares, but let them make sure of the favor of God and the honor that comes from Him, and then they may well enough afford to bear the slights and neglects of men” (Matthew Henry) It should also be carefully noted that these God-honoring Levites made known their claim openly and publicly, instead of secretly and privately.
They did not engage in a “whispering campaign,” going around sowing the seeds of dissension among their brethren, or of criticism of Joshua, complaining at their being neglected — for as yet no provision had been made where they should reside with their families and flocks. No, they applied in an orderly and frank manner before the Divinely appointed court, saying, “The Lord commanded by the hand of Moses to give us cities to dwell in, with the suburbs thereof for our cattle” (verse 2).
They came not as beggars, and asked for no favors. Their appeal was neither to charity nor to equity — as being due them on the ground of fairness. They used no claim of worthiness or fidelity to duty. Instead, their appeal was made to the word of God, that which He had commanded by Moses; and thus they acted on the basis of a “Thus saith the Lord.”
It is quite evident, then, that on this occasion the Levites were far from being actuated by a spirit of either discontent or covetousness. Had they been moved by avarice they had not waited until now, but had either taken matters into their own hands or had put in their claim much earlier. No, it was an orderly request that they should now receive that to which they were entitled by Divine grant. Most commendable was their meekness and patience. How different the character and conduct of so many ecclesiastics during the Christian era, whose love of money and lust for power knew no bounds, scrupling not to employ the most tyrannous measures and heartless methods to impoverish their members while they lived in luxury and resided in their “palaces”! And the same spirit is by nature in every preacher, and against its least indulgence he needs to be on his guard.
Unspeakably solemn is it to note that the oft-quoted words, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows,” occur in one of the pastoral epistles! They are succeeded by, “But thou, O man of God [i.e. servant of Christ], flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness” ( 1 Timothy 6:10,11).
Nor is it without reason that the injunction “having food and raiment, let us be therewith content” is found in the same epistle ( Joshua 6:8), immediately preceding the above warning and exhortation. Few realize the sinfulness of discontent, which is nothing but a species of self-will, a secret murmuring against Providence, a being dissatisfied with the portion God has given us. Contrariwise, contentment is a holy composure of mind, a resting in the Lord, a thankful enjoyment of what He has graciously bestowed. Hence, contentment is the spiritual antidote to covetousness: “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have” ( Hebrews 13:5) — the former vice can be avoided only by assiduously cultivating the opposite virtue. If the preacher is to magnify his office and glorify his Master, he needs to mortify his fleshly lusts and carnal ambitions, abstaining from all extravagance, and living frugally: evidencing that his affections are set upon things above and not on things below. When Socrates the pagan philosopher beheld a display of costly and elegant articles for sale, he exclaimed: “How many things are here that I need not!”
Such ought to be the attitude and language of every child of God as he passes through this “Vanity Fair,” pre-eminently so in the case of His servants. “Giving no offense in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed: but in all things approving [commending] ourselves as the ministers of God” ( 2 Corinthians 6:3,4).
What an exalted standard of piety is that! Yet nothing less is what the Holy One requires of His representatives. The unbelieving are ever ready to charge the Gospel itself with having a strong tendency to encourage the carnalities which disgrace the character of so many professors, and especially if the same appear in the lives of those who preach it. Nor is that a thing to be wondered at. What can be expected from those who have no experiential acquaintance with the things of God than to conclude that those who preach salvation by grace through Jesus Christ are the products of the same? In their judgment, the daily life of the preacher either commends or condemns his message. Hence it is that, among other reasons, the minister of Christ is bidden: “In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works: in doctrine showing uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, sound speech [and not the slang of the world], that cannot be condemned, that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you” ( Titus 2:7,8).
Returning more directly to the Levites in Joshua 21. In their “The Lord commanded by the hand of Moses to give us cities to dwell in” they were, in reality, pleading a Divine promise! It was recorded in Numbers 35:1-8, that Jehovah issued definite orders to that end, and therefore they were asking only for that to which they had a right by Divine authority. Here too they have left an example, which needs to be followed not only by God’s servants but by all of His people, for it is the use which we make of His promises that, to a considerable extent, regulates our spiritual prosperity, as well as the peace and joy of our hearts.
First , we should labor to become well acquainted with the same, for while we, remain in ignorance no benefit can be derived from them. Those Levites were informed upon that which concerned their interests. So should we be. We should daily search the Scriptures for them, and make an inventory of our spiritual wealth. The Divine promises are the peculiar treasure of the saints, for the substance of faith’s inheritance is wrapped up in them.
Third , God’s promises are to be personally appropriated and pleaded before His throne of grace. This is one reason why He has given them to us: not only to manifest His loving-kindness in making known His gracious intentions, but also for the comfort of our hearts. Had He so pleased, our Father could have bestowed His blessings without giving us notice of His benign purposes; but He has ordained that we should enjoy them twice over: first by faith, and then by fruition. By this means He weans our hearts away from things seen and temporal, and draws them onward and upward to things which are spiritual and eternal. Thus are we to make His promises the support and stay of our souls. Not only are they to be the food of faith, but the regulators of our petitions. Real prayer is the making request for those things which God is pledged to bestow: “And this is the confidence that we have in Him, that, if we ask any thing according to His will, He heareth us” ( 1 John 5:14): that is, according as His will is made known to us in His Word — anything other than that is self-will on our part ( James 4:3).
While on the one hand God has promised to bestow, on the other hand we are required to make request — that He may be duly owned and honored, that we express our dependence upon Him. “Ask, and ye shall receive” is the Divinely appointed way. In Ezekiel 36:36, God makes most definite promise to His people, adding, “I the Lord have spoken it, and I will do it.” Yet immediately after, He declares, “Thus saith the Lord God: I will yet [nevertheless] for this be enquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them.” Such inquiry is designed for the strengthening of our faith, the quickening of our hope, the development of our patience. Cities had been Divinely assured unto the Levites, yet they received them not until they appealed for them by pleading God’s word to them through Moses! And that has been recorded for our instruction. One wonders how often it is the case that “ye have not, because ye ask not” ( James 4:2) — always so when faith be not in exercise ( James 1:6,7). Observe well how Jacob pleaded the Divine promise in Genesis 32:18; Moses in Exodus 32:13; David in <19B958> Psalm 119:58; Solomon in 1 Kings 8:25, and go thou and do likewise. “And the children of Israel gave unto the Levites out of their inheritance, at the commandment of the Lord, these cities and their suburbs” ( Joshua 21:3).
Thus was the priestly tribe fully provided for through its brethren by Divine ordinance; and it is blessed to mark how particularly the Holy Spirit has placed it upon record that they discharged this obligation as an act of obedience unto God. They might have demurred at being called upon to relinquish some of the places which they had fought hard to obtain, but they raised no objection and duly performed their duty when reminded of the Divine will. In like manner, Christians are bidden to communicate unto those who care for their spiritual interests, and to do so at God’s commandment. Equally striking is it to observe how that the portion received by the Levites was a gift — so referred to in both verses 2 and 3.
This act of giving was designed by the Lord to counteract that selfish spirit and attachment to a present world which is common to all of us. The same principle is illustrated again in Romans 15:27: “their debtors they are.
For if the Gentiles have been made partakers of their [Israel’s] spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things.”
The principle which was to regulate the allocating of the Levitical cities by their brethren was clearly defined in Numbers 35:8, “And the cities which ye shall give shall be of the possession of the children of Israel: from them that have many ye shall give many: but from them that have few ye shall give few; every one shall give of his cities unto the Levites according to his inheritance which he inheriteth.” Thus was each tribe accorded the opportunity of making grateful acknowledgment unto the Lord of what He had so graciously bestowed upon them, for what they gave unto the Levites was accepted as given to Him, and thereby were their possessions sanctified to them — some of the best and largest of the cities being freely donated. The several tribes were not assessed uniformly, but according to the extent of their possessions. The equity of such an arrangement is at once apparent. The same was duly executed, for out of Judah’s and Simeon’s lots (the most extensive) nine cities were given, whereas out of the other tribes only four cities were taken from each (Joshua 31). In like manner, New Testament saints are exhorted, “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him” ( 1 Corinthians 16:2), i.e. a definite proportion of his income.
If it be true on the one side that a mercenary priesthood has been notorious for its greedy grasping of wealth and temporal power; on the other side, only too frequently many of the most devoted and self-sacrificing of Christ’s servants have received the scantiest acknowledgment. As Barnes remarked, “The poor beast that has served the man and his family in the days of his vigor is often turned out in old age to die; and something like this sometimes occurs in the treatment of ministers of the Gospel. The conduct of a people, generous in many other respects, is often unaccountable in their treatment of their pastors: and one of the lessons which ministers often have to learn, like their Master, by bitter experience, is the ingratitude of those in whose welfare they have toiled and prayed and wept.” Yet that is far from being always the case, as this writer can thankfully testify. For upwards of forty years the Lord has moved His stewards to minister freely and liberally to his temporal needs: so that we too can reply to His question “lacked ye anything? Nothing” ( Luke 22:35). No good thing has He withheld from us.
The method followed by Israel in selecting the Levitical cities appears to have been something like this. First, the court, after duly considering the size of its inheritance, appointed how many cities should be taken out of each tribe. Then the “fathers of the tribes” agreed among themselves which cities were most suitable. After that had been settled, the forty-eight cities were divided into four groups, for the four branches of the Levitical tribe.
Lots were cast to determine the distribution of them. The sons of Levi were Gershom, Kohath, Merari. From Kohath descended Moses, Aaron and Miriam ( 1 Chronicles 6:1-3). The “children of Aaron” ( Joshua 21:4) were not only Levites, but priests too, whose more immediate work was to serve at the altar. It should be duly noted that though this was the least numerous of the four branches, yet, in keeping with the prominence of the priesthood throughout the book of Joshua, “the first lot” (verse 10) was for the children of Aaron, and thus was honor placed again upon this Divine institution. It is further to be observed that more cities were assigned unto them than to any other branch of Levi.
It should perhaps be pointed out that the term “city” in Scripture does not signify (as it does with us today) a large town having a corporation, but simply “an enclosed space “ — see Genesis 4:17, for the first mention.
The “suburbs,” as pastures for the cattle, extended for nearly a mile in every direction ( Numbers 35:5). In appointing the larger number of cities for the children of Aaron we see a proof of the Divine foreknowledge, for those who have made a thorough study of this detail judge that they increased more than any of the other three families, therefore larger accommodation would be required for their descendants in the future. That their cities were taken from that part of Canaan which had been given to the tribes of Judah, Simeon and Benjamin ( Joshua 21:4) was also profoundly significant, illustrating as it did the wise disposings of Providence, for that was the territory which lay nearest to Jerusalem, which centuries later was to be the site of the temple, and the headquarters of Judaism. That was the place which had been chosen in the Divine counsels where God should put His name. “Known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” ( Acts 15:18)!
This is to intimate that all was done by Divine appointment and in obedience unto God’s will. There is a touching detail recorded in verse which we must not overlook, for there we are told that the city of Hebron became the possession of the children of Aaron. It will be remembered that this was the city which had been given to Caleb by the commandment of the Lord ( Joshua 15:13). It seems, then, that he had personally made it a voluntary present unto the priests, thereby setting an example before his fellows of noble generosity and devotion to the cause of Jehovah. How he puts to shame many church members of today who are so neglectful of the maintenance of Christ’s servants! Those who are indifferent to the temporal welfare of His ministers cannot be in communion with Him who notices the fall of every sparrow, or recognize the holy privileges of being “fellow-helpers to the Truth” ( 3 John 1:8). May writer and reader ever act in this manner “according to the commandment of the Lord.”