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Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 6: Harmony of the Law, Part IV, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at

Numbers 9

Numbers 9:17-23

17. And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, then after that the children of Israel journeyed: and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel pitched their tents.

17. Quum discederet nubes a tabernaculo, postea proficiscebantur filii Israel: atque in loco ubi manebat nubes, illic castrametabantur filii Israel.

18. At the commandment of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they pitched: as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents.

18. Ad os Jehovae proficiscebantur filii Israel, et ad os Jehovae castrametabantur: cunctis diebus quibus stabat nubes supra tabernaculum, manebant.

19. And when the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not.

19. Quum autem moram trahebat nubes supra tabernaculum diebus multis, tunc observabant filii Israel custodiam Jehovae, et non proficiscebantur.

20. And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the commandment of the Lord they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the Lord they journeyed.

20. Quando autem nubes paucis diebus erat super tabernaculum, ad os Jehovae manebant, et ad os Jehovae proficiscebantur.

21. And so it was, when the cloud abode from even unto the morning, and that the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night that the cloud was taken up, they journeyed.

21. Quando igitur erat nubes a vespera usque mane, ascendebat autem nubes mane, tunc proficiscebantur: aut si nocte et die, et postea ascendebat nubes, tunc proficiscebantur.

22. Or whether it were two days, or a month, or a year, that the cloud tarried upon the tabernacle, remaining thereon, the children of Israel abode in their tents, and journeyed not: but when it was taken up, they journeyed.

22. Aut duobus diebus, aut mense, aut anno, quando moram trahebat nubes super tabernaculum, manendo super illud, in castris manebant filii Israel, nec proficiscebantur: si autem illa ascendebat, tunc proficiscebantur.

23. At the commandment of the Lord they rested in the tents, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed: they kept the charge of the Lord, at the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses.

23. Ad os Jehovae castrametabantur, et ad os Jehovae proficiscebantur: custodiam Jehovae servabant ad os Jehovae per manum Mosis.

17. And when the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle. Moses before informed us that the tabernacle was so distinguished by a visible miracle, that God made it manifest that He dwelt there: not that He left heaven and removed to that earthly house, but in order to be nigh to His people by the presence of His power and grace, whenever He was invoked by them. He now reports another miracle, that God, by uplifting the cloud, gave a sign, as it were, by which He commanded them to strike the camp; and when the cloud rested on the tabernacle, it was a sign that they should abide where they were. Here, however, a question arises; since it has been already said that, immediately after their departure from Egypt, the cloud was like a banner to direct the march of the people, it follows that they were not now for the first time admonished by its being lifted up to collect their baggage, and ordered as it were to advance. The answer is easy, that the people were indeed previously directed by the sight of the cloud, as we have seen; but that here a new fact is related, viz., that since the tabernacle was set up, the cloud, which hitherto was suspended in the air and went before the camp, now settled on the sanctuary: for a fresh acquisition of grace is here proclaimed by the more certain and conspicuous sign, as if God showed himself more closely and familiarly as the leader of the people. Although, therefore, the cloud had been the director of their march from its very commencement, yet it more fully illustrated the glory of the tabernacle when it proceeded from thence.

18. At the commandment of the Lord.  2 The mouth is here used by metonymy for the speech; nor does there appear to me to be so much harshness in the Hebraism, but that it may be appropriately retained. But it is asked whether God actually spoke or not; for the word mouth is often repeated. It is indeed likely that Moses was instructed but once what was meant by the removal or remaining of the cloud; yet I doubt not but that the name of word, or commandment, was given to the sign, inasmuch as God speaks as much to the eyes by outward signs as He does to the ears by His voice. Still, from this mode of expression we may gather that the use of signs  3 is perverted and nullified, unless they are taken to be visible doctrine, as Augustin writes. The repetition, which certainly has no little force, shows how worthy this is of observation.

19. Then the children kept the charge of the Lord. Some,  4 in my opinion, extend this too far, thinking that when the cloud tarried, the children of Israel, being as it were at leisure, employed themselves in the worship of God; but I restrict it rather to that heedfulness which is then praised at some length. To keep the charge (custodiam,) then, is equivalent to regarding the will of God with the greatest earnestness and care. For, when the cloud had begun to rest in any place, the people knew that they were to remain there; but if on the next day they were not attentive, the cloud might vanish, and thus their neglect and carelessness might deprive them of this incomparable advantage.

To this end it is said immediately afterwards that, If for one day, or more, or even for a month, or a year, the cloud stood still, the people was, as it were, tied to the spot. The old interpreter  5 has not badly rendered it, “The children of Israel were upon the watch;” since day and night they anxiously expected the time when God would command them to move forward. The last verse of the chapter confirms this sense, where it is again added, that “they kept the charge of the Lord at His mouth by the hand of Moses:” whence it appears that Moses was God’s interpreter, so that they might set forth on their march whenever the cloud being lifted up pointed out to them the way. Nor can it be doubted but that it preceded them; so that they might know in what direction God would have them proceed, and whither they were to go. Moreover, it must be observed that in both respects it is counted worthy of praise in the people, that they should either journey, or continue where they were, at God’s command. Thus is that absurd activity condemned which engages itself in endless work; as if men could only obey God by turmoil. Whereas it is sometimes no less a virtue to rest, when it so pleases God.  6



“At the mouth of the Lord.” — Lat.


“Des sacremens.” — Fr. I cannot find that Augustin anywhere uses the exact words which C. here attributes to him. In his Tract. in Evang. Johan., 80. Section 3, however, he says, “Detrahe verbum, et quid est aqua nisi aqua? Accedit verbum ad elementum, et fit sacramentum, etiam ipsum tanquam visibile verbum.” (Edit. Bened. vol. 3, part. 2, p. 703.) And again, Contra Faustum, lib. 19. cap. 16: “Quid enim sunt aliud quaeque corporalia sacramenta, nisi quaedam quasi verba visibiliar? Etc. Vol. 8:32l. Both these passages are quoted by C. Inst. 4, 14. Section 6.


Dathe agrees with Malvenda and other ancient commentators in adopting the opinion here rejected by C. “The sense of the passage (he says) is, that the Israelites set up the holy tabernacle, and observed the holy rites, if they were detained for many days in one place; but if for a short time only, the tabernacle was not set up. Whether this was to be the case or not was indicated to them by Moses, according to Nu 9:23.”


I.e., the Vulgate: “Erant filii Israel in excubiis Domini.”


“They also serve, who only stand, and wait.” — Milton; Sonnet on his blindness.

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