In these difficult economic times and with all the struggles that we all face, we need to remember that God promises His presence with us when life is hard. Numbers gives us an honest biography of the people in the wilderness. They do not come out looking good! But isn’t that exactly the kind of book that we need? Because if our hearts were opened and our lives were read in public, we wouldn’t come out looking good either. 1 Corinthians 10 tells us that we’re to learn from them, and so that’s what we’re going to do.
What is in the center of both their movement and their camp? The tabernacle. And what is in the tabernacle? The ark of the covenant. And what is the ark of the covenant? It is the visible, tangible, symbolic manifestation of the nearness, the presence of God with His people. So who is in the middle of this formation? God. God Himself, Moses is reminding us, must be the center of our life, of our mission, of our purpose in this world.
Interestingly, Egyptian Pharoah Ramses II in the thirteenth century ordered his armies when he went out to battle just like this. The Lord is giving them a battle formation that they would have recognized. The children of Israel would have remembered this battle formation, and guess where Ramses’ tent was in his battle formation? The king was in the middle. And when the tabernacle went in the middle, the people of God understood the lesson. The message would have been unmistakeable: God is at the heart of this; God is at the center of this. God is the one who gives kingly leadership. God is the one who is the center of our life, and our mission, and our purpose in this world; and when we live otherwise, things always go bad. The God who spoke the galaxies into existence was living among His people in a tent (yes a large and very ornate one, but still a tent) while His people went through the wilderness in a tent! God makes this point to David in 2 Samuel. When David has just moved into his new palace in Jerusalem. He looks out his window, and out of the window of his palace, what does he see? He sees a tent. This tent. And he knows that it’s wrong for him, the mere human king of Israel, to be living in a palace while God’s ark of the covenant is in a tent. And so he says to his good friend, Nathan the prophet, “Nathan, it’s wrong for me to live in a palace while God’s ark of the covenant is in a tent. I want to build God a palace. I want to build Him a house. I want to build Him a temple.” And God comes to Nathan that night and says “Nathan, I want you to tell David something.” He says ‘”David, when My people were wandering through the wilderness in tents, I lived in a tent with them. Where in all of those years did I ever ask them to build me a palace?” (2 Samuel 7:1-7) God doesn’t ask you to do anything He isn’t prepared to do Himself.
In this arrangement, the outer tribes are pretty far away from the tabernacle, and the priests are in between them and the tent of meeting. In fact, the outer tribes are probably 1,000 yards from the tent of meeting. Ten football fields! No one came into that tent except representatively through the priests and the Levites. We need a mediator between us and God. Christ came to be our high priest and our one and only mediator between God and man. (1 Timothy 2:5) Check out Revelation 21, and you will see a revelation of this same formation in the future:
It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed—on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:12-14)
And then there was a measurement taken. And how is the city laid out? As a square. (Revelation 21:16)
Every follower of Christ will see this arrangement again, but this time there will be no tent to hide the glory of the Lord; no temple to hide the glory of the Lord; no Holy of Holies to hide the glory of the Lord. The Lord Almighty and the Lamb will be in our midst, and we will see them with all their glory. (Revelation 21:22-27)