Only on two occasions did the Lord command that all His people should be counted, once before the journeyings in the wilderness (Num. 1:1-4), and once on the plains of Moab, preparatory to entry into the promised land (Num. 26:1-4), but in each case only the males were to be counted, from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war in Israel. What are we to learn from this?
First, to look at the question literally, we see that every man was expected to go to war; there was universal service in those days, and any holding back was strictly judged (Judges 5:23; 21:8-10). The women and children were loved, nourished and cared for, but the men were to fight the battles of the Lord.
Through the wilderness the armed host had to encamp round the tabernacle of testimony (containing the ark of testimony and the tables of testimony), they had to guard it when stationary or on the march. Fighting was not the business of the wilderness, but fighting there had to be in order that they might move onward.
In the land they had to fight first to take possession and next to maintain possession. To belong to God's army it was necessary to be an able-bodied man, able to go to war. Women and children could not fight, on the contrary, they needed to be protected. Therefore, in the Lord's host, only the men were counted.
Now, what are we to learn from this? Surely that we are to long to be men. Of course, it is not now a question of sex in this matter, a sister may be a man of God (2 John 10). And in Romans 16 where we get a list of God's mighty men (corresponding to the mighty men of David's army, 2 Sam. 23), we find that a large number of them are women. Therefore, it is not a matter of sex, but of spiritual strength and of growth. Every child of God should desire to grow and be strong for the Lord, for it is written, "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong."
But how are we to grow and become men? It is explained in Heb. 5:12-14. These Hebrew Christians ought to have become able to teach, but had to be taught again the elements of the truth, they were unskilful in the word of righteousness, and were babes, whereas those who are grown up are those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. They did not answer to Christ in glory.
Here is the secret, it is a universal law that powers unexercised are soon lost, while by use and exercise these powers are increased and there is growth. Is not this the secret of much of our stunted growth, our lack of spiritual strength and discernment. Does not this account for the way we hang so much on others, blindly accept leaders, follow the multitude? Unless we make use of what God gives us for the good of others, unless there is exercise every step of our path, unless we are weaned from dependence even on the best of men (Isa. 28:9), how can we learn, how grow, how become strong? It is impossible. We must learn to find Christ sufficient.
Yet how many of us have thought that to settle down, and make ourselves comfortable, while we keep from gross evils and are regular at services and meetings is all that is desired, and that to fight the battles of the Lord belongs only to the few. This is clerisy, and it is found everywhere, not only where it is accepted in principle, but also where in principle it is strenuously denied. "To him that hath shall be given," "he that watereth shall be watered also himself," "much increase is by the strength of the ox," and "blessed are ye that sow beside all waters, that send forth thither the feet of the ox and the ass."
Again, it is indeed most important to be separate from evil, but what is true separation from evil? It is emphatically not the separation of the monk and the nun. True separation from evil is Christ-likeness which moves about amongst our fellowmen, but is altogether of a different spirit from that of this world, with other motives, desires and ambitions. Thus it is written, "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen," but what about our brother who lives in our street, our neighbourhood, and whom we have often seen, but we have never done anything to show our love to him? Will it do at the judgment-seat to say, he was not "of us," and therefore we were justified in ignoring him. We are bound to shew love to him, how have we done it? Truly we have reason to be humbled to the dust, for we have not neighboured our brother, and if our excuse is, "Oh, he is all wrong," this will only make our own case worse, for the need was all the greater. "If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn to death, and those that are ready to be slain; if thou sayest, behold, we knew it not; doth not he that pondereth the heart consider it? and he that keepeth thy soul, doth he not know it? and shall he not render to every man according to his works? (Prov. 24:11, 12.)
We cannot grow unless we use what God gives us, what He gives to one he gives for all. As surely as in nature a limb used grows strong, and a limb unused becomes useless, so in spiritual things, if we are to (as we should) grow up to manhood to be men in Christ, and if we are to earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints, so by use in the setting forth of Christ from day to day among men are we to gain appetite, or otherwise we shall not desire the sincere milk of the word that we may grow thereby unto salvation. It is those who have purified their souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, who are thus addressed. (See 1 Peter 1:22, 2:2.)
Services and meetings are, of course, most useful if rightly used, but there must be assimilation of truth, there must be deep exercise, there must be the bringing of the truth into use for the benefit of others. There must be faithfulness to God, but also love for all saints and the seeking the good of all men, if while being children in malice we are in understanding to be men (1 Cor. 14:20). Here again the subject is the edification of others. Therefore when services and meetings are made the end before us instead of a means towards the end, they become a positive hindrance, just as undigested food does. We cannot be true to Christ and not do good to men; we cannot do good to men unless we are true to Christ.
May God then teach us how best to profit by that truth which He brings before us, how to assimilate it, and how to bring it into use first for God's glory, and then for the good of others, how to shew love to all our fellow-Christians, those who agree with us and those who do not, but especially those whom we have seen (i.e. live round about us), and how like Christ to be in true heart separation to God while seeking the good of all. Only thus can we grow up to be men, and be of those who are counted as able to go to war and share in the conflict that must go on until all enemies are put under the feet of Christ. Till then may we go on unto perfection (i.e. full growth), gaining real personal knowledge, each one for himself or herself, of Christ in glory.