The coherence of this chapter with that foregoing is very observable.
I. The people, in the close of that chapter, had complained of the difficulty and peril that there were in drawing near to God, which put them under some dreadful apprehensions that the tabernacle in the midst of them, which they hoped would have been their joy and glory, would rather be their terror and ruin. Now, in answer to this complaint, God here gives them to understand by Aaron that the priests should come near for them as their representatives; so that, though the people were obliged to keep their distance, yet that should not at all redound to their disgrace or prejudice, but their comfortable communion with God should be kept up by the interposition of the priests.
II. A great deal of honour God had now lately put upon Aaron; his rod had budded and blossomed, when the rods of the rest of the princes remained dry, and destitute both of fruit and ornament. Now lest Aaron should be puffed up with the abundance of the favours that were done him, and the miracles that were wrought for the support of him in his high station, God comes to him to remind him of the burden that was laid upon him, and the duty required from him as a priest. He would see reason not to be proud of his preferment, but to receive the honours of his office with reverence and holy trembling, when he considered how great was the charge committed to him, and how hard it would be for him to give a good account of it. Be not high-minded, but fear.
1. God tells him of the danger that attended his dignity, Num. 18:1. (1.) That both the priests and Levites (thou, and thy sons, and thy father’s house) should bear the iniquity of the sanctuary; that is, if the sanctuary were profaned by the intrusion of strangers, or persons in their uncleanness, the blame should lie upon the Levites and priests, who ought to have kept them off. Though the sinner that thrust in presumptuously should die in his iniquity, yet his blood should be required at the hands of the watchmen. Or it may be taken more generally: “If any of the duties or offices of the sanctuary be neglected, if any service be not done in its season or not according to the law, if any thing be lost or misplaced in the removal of the sanctuary, you shall be accountable for it, and answer it at your peril.” (2.) That the priests should themselves bear the iniquity of the priesthood; that is, if they either neglected any part of their work or permitted any other persons to invade their office, and take their work out of their hands, they should bear the blame of it. Note, The greater the trust is of work and power that is committed to us the greater is our danger of contracting guilt, by falsifying and betraying that trust. This is a good reason why we should neither be envious at others’ honours nor ambitious ourselves of high places, because great dignity exposes us to great iniquity. Those that are entrusted with the charge of the sanctuary will have a great deal to answer for. Who would covet the care of souls who considers the account that must be given of that care?
2. He tells him of the duty that attended his dignity. (1.) That he and his sons must minister before the tabernacle of witness (Num. 18:2); that is (as bishop Patrick explains it), before the most holy place, in which the ark was, on the outside of the veil of that tabernacle, but within the door of the tabernacle, of the congregation. They were to attend the golden altar, the table, and candlestick, which no Levite might approach to. You shall serve, Num. 18:7. Not, “You shall rule” (it was never intended that they should lord it over God’s heritage), but “You shall serve God and the congregation.” Note, The priesthood is a service. If any desire the office of a bishop he desires a good work. Ministers must remember that they are ministers, that is, servants, of whom it is required that they be humble, diligent, and faithful. (2.) That the Levites must assist him and his sons, and minister to them in all the service of the tabernacle (Num. 18:2-4), though they must by no means come nigh the vessels of the sanctuary, nor at the altar meddle with the great services of burning the fat and sprinkling the blood. Aaron’s family was very small, and, as it increased, the rest of the families of Israel would increase likewise, so that the hands of the priests neither were now nor were likely to be sufficient for all the service of the tabernacle; therefore (says God) the Levites shall be joined to thee, Num. 18:2; and again Num. 18:4; where there seems to be an allusion to the name of Levi, which signifies joined. Many of the Levites had of late set themselves against Aaron, but henceforward God promises that they should be heartily joined to him in interest and affection, and should no more contest with him. It was a good sign to Aaron that God owned him when he inclined the hearts of those concerned to own him too. The Levites are said to be given as a gift to the priests, Num. 18:6. Note, We are to value it as a great gift of the divine bounty to have those joined to us that will be helpful and serviceable to us in the service of God. (3.) That both priests and Levites must carefully watch against the profanation of sacred things. The Levites must keep the charge of the tabernacle, that no stranger (that is, none who upon any account was forbidden to come) might come nigh (Num. 18:4), and that upon pain of death, Num. 18:7. And the priests must keep the charge of the sanctuary (Num. 18:5), must instruct the people, and admonish them concerning the due distance they were to keep, and not suffer them to break the bounds set them, as Korah’s company had done, that there be no wrath any more upon the children of Israel. Note, The preventing of sin is the preventing of wrath; and the mischief sin has done should be a warning to us for the future to watch against it both in ourselves and others.