The title of this chapter—“In the wilderness”—is also the title of this fourth book of the Bible in the Hebrew editions of the Old Testament. That title comes from the first verse of Numbers, which begins this way: “Yahweh spoke to Moses in the wilderness.” Nonetheless, this is not the name of the fourth Bible book in our English translations. Our English title comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. That version replaced the Hebrew title (bamidbar) with arithmoi (numbers). Later the Vulgate translated this as “Numbers.” Both the Greek and the Latin titles mean: Numbers, or Censuses. It is true, of course, that in Numbers we are going to hear a lot about numbers and counting. But we will hear about something more than that.
“Luke the beloved physician greets you.” That is what the apostle Paul calls his faithful coworker in Colossians 4:14. He mentions him along with the non-Jewish believers. From this we infer that originally Luke was a Gentile who had been converted from idols to the living and true God, and was expecting his Son Jesus Christ from heaven. Luke discloses very little about himself. In fact, he does not even mention his own name anywhere in his books. Eusebius reports in his Church History (c. 325) that the evangelist came from Antioch in Syria, the earliest center of the Gentile-Christian church, and that he not only accompanied Paul frequently, but enjoyed contact with the other apostles as well.
The gospel had already penetrated deeply into Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. Both Jews as well as Gentiles had been converted to Messiah Jesus through Paul’s preaching. How would the mixed churches now develop? Into a new Jewish sect with first- and second-class members? Or into the holy, catholic Christian church, consisting of both Messiah-confessing Jews and Gentiles converted to him? Both had been freed by the gospel from a religious prison. The first from Jewish religious bonds and the latter from pagan religious bonds. Would they continue standing firm in the freedom of Christ, or allow themselves to be put into bondage once again, this time with Christian religious fetters? In other words: would they continue freely and joyfully in the grace of the Lord Jesus, or become slaves of a new “Law”?
Our plan is to discuss Psalm 59 first, and then Psalms 56, 57, 34, and 52. We wish to read these psalms in this sequence because the events they sing about occurred during David’s persecution by Saul. Psalm 59: when Saul had almost killed him. Psalm 56: when the Philistines had arrested him in Gath. Psalm 57: when David fled from Saul in the cave. Psalm 34: praise and wisdom from the cave of the oppressed. Psalm 52: after the mass murder of the priestly city of Nob.
A few pages introduce the book of Psalms, as it were, something one can view as a combination of what we call a table of contents and an introduction. With this we are referring to Psalm 1 and Psalm 2. In the first place those psalms tell you what the main theme of the upcoming Bible book is: God’s people living with the Torah (Psalm 1), under the dominion of Yahweh and his anointed (Psalm 2).