The Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 21:4-9 (Numbers 21:4-9)

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Numbers 21:4 (Numbers 21:4)

They journeyed from Mount Hor. It appears from comparison of Numbers 33:38 and Numbers 20:29 that their departure was not earlier than the beginning of the sixth month of the fortieth year. This season would be one of the hottest and most trying for marching. By the way of the Red Sea, i.e; down the Arabah, towards Ezion-geber, at the head of the Elanitic Gulf. Septuagint, ὁδὸν ἐπὶ θά . Not far from this place they would reach the end of the Edomitish territory, and turn eastwards and northwards up the Wady el Ithm towards the steppes of Moab. Discouraged. Literally, "shortened" or "straitened," as in Exodus 6:9 . Septuagint, ὡλιγοψύχησεν ὁ λαός . Because of the way . The Ambah is a stony, sandy, almost barren plain shut in by mountain walls on either side, and subject to sand-storms. It was not only, however, merely the heat and drought and ruggedness of the route which depressed them, but the fact that they were marching directly away from Canaan, and knew not how they were ever to reach it.

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Numbers 21:4-9 (Numbers 21:4-9)

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Numbers 21:4-9 (Numbers 21:4-9)

I. THE DISCOURAGEMENT WHICH GAVE RISE TO COMPLAINING , AND SO LED TO THE RAVAGES OF SIN . Consider—

1 . That the Israelites were discouraged, or straitened in soul, because of the way, and this was the beginning of all that suffering and death. Even so are we often and often discouraged because of the way to heaven, the way of life by which it pleases God to lead us, and which seems so hard, so weary, so interminable, so unendurable at times. It is "because of the way" that all our distresses and discouragements arise. The "end" is well enough; who would not seek it? but the way is weary indeed!

2 . That this discouragement was not only because of the hardships of the road, although they were great, but especially because it did not seem to be leading them to Canaan at all— rather away from it. Even so we are, many of us, discouraged grievously, not only because the way in which we walk is so hard and painful, and demands so much self-denial, but especially because we seem to make no progress in it; we do not feel that we are any nearer to the promised rest; the cross is as heavy as ever, but the crown does not show any more bright; rather we seem to be getting further and ever further from that repose of mind and soul to which we had looked forward.

3 . That their discouragement because of the way was aggravated by the fact that the evil was due to the unkindness of their brother Edom, who forced them to march round by the Arabah. Even so very many of our discouragements and difficulties arise from the unkindness, the opposition, even the hostility in religious matters, of those who are most nearly related to or most closely connected with us. Often they seem to hold the passes through which lies our way to rest, and they deliberately block them against us.

II. THE COMPLAINING IN WHICH THEIR DISCOURAGEMENT FOUND VENT . Consider—

1 . That they complained of Moses and of God instead of reproaching themselves, as they should have done. Even so when we are suffering, as we must expect sometimes to suffer, from religious depression and discouragement we are in great danger of murmuring against God and of complaining of our lot. If it were, as it ought to be,

"our chief complaint That our love is weak and faint,"

we should soon cease to have cause to complain.

2 . That they spoke contemptuously of the manna. Even so are we tempted at times of weariness to think slightingly and ungratefully of the spiritual food which God has provided for us, as though it not only palled upon us by reason of sameness, but failed to satisfy us by reason of its unsubstantial character. We demand something more coarse, more exciting.

III. THE DESTRUCTION IN WHICH THEIR SINFUL MURMURING INVOLVED THEM . Consider—

1 . That fiery serpents came among them. Even so it is when men lose heart and faith, and complain of their lot ( i.e; of God's providence), and contemn their religious privileges, that they are especially in danger of falling a prey to deadly sins which war against the soul. A heart discouraged and an angry mind are Satan's grand opportunities, for they mean God alienated and his grace forfeited.

2 . That the serpents bit them, and their bite was fatal, for much people died. Even so do sins—not mere sin in the abstract, but definite and particular sins—fasten upon unhappy souls and instill a poison into them which works death; for the life of the soul is union with God, and this union is broken up by the action of sin upon the soul, so that it must die if the poison be not cast out. And many do die, as we see.

IV. THE SALVATION WHICH GOD PROVIDED . Consider—

1 . That the perishing people cried to Moses to pray for them, for lie was their mediator. Even so the cries of men yearning to be delivered from their sins, and from the death which follows sin, have always reached the Father through the intercession of the one Mediator, even though they knew him not.

2 . That a "saraph" was ordained to heal the deadly bites of the "seraphim." Even so our Lord was made in the likeness of sinful flesh,—of that sinful flesh in which the deadly poison of sin existed,—and took that very form which in every other Case was full of sin ( Romans 8:3 ; 2 Corinthians 5:21 ; 1 Peter 2:22-24 ).

3 . That Moses made the serpent of brass in order to resemble the fiery serpents in appearance. Even so our Lord was so thoroughly human, and in the eyes of men so like to sinners, that he was freely suspected, loudly accused, and finally condemned as a sinner.

4 . That the brazen serpent, however much a saraph inform and colour, had no poison in it. Even so our Lord. though truly and perfectly human, was without sin, neither was any guile found in his mouth.

5 . That the brazen serpent was lifted up upon a standard; no doubt in order that all eyes might be drawn to the symbol of salvation. Even so our Lord was lifted up upon the cross, which is an ensign unto the nations, the standard of the Lord's host, and the sign ( signum— σήμειον ) of the Son of man; and he was lifted up to draw all men unto him by the startling character and persuasive attraction of that elevation.

6 . That whoever looked at the brazen serpent was healed of the bite of the serpent. Even so every one that beholdeth Christ crucified with the eye of faith is healed of the deadly wound inflicted upon him by the old serpent, and "hath everlasting life." Moreover, as they died of the bite of some particular serpent, and were healed of that bite, so do we suffer from the effects of some particular sin or sins, and from these—their power and poison—we must be and may be healed. Christ is evidently set forth before us crucified that we may be saved from our besetting sin, whatever it may be; and it is to that end that we must look to him.

7 . That everybody within sight of the standard might have been healed, but only those who looked were healed. Even so there is in the cross of Christ healing full and free for all sinners to whom the knowledge of the cross may come, but as a fact only those are healed who fix upon the Saviour the gaze of faith.

8 . That it was not the "symbol of salvation," but the power and goodness of God acting through it, which saved the people. Even so it is not anything formal or material in the sacrifice of Calvary, neither is it any definitions or dogmas about that sacrifice: but it is the saving grace of God in Christ and in him crucified, which delivers from the terror and virus of sin. Notice further—

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Numbers 21:4 (Numbers 21:4)

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Numbers 21:4-9 (Numbers 21:4-9)

I. THE DIRECTION OF THE WAY . It led away from Canaan; it was apparently a retreat. Our circumstances may seem to be drawing us further and further from God and heaven; but if we are in God's way it must lead right at last. Illustrate from Exodus 13:17 , Exodus 13:18 , and cf. Psalms 25:4 , Psalms 25:5 , Psalms 25:10

II. THE LENGTH OF THE WAY . It might have been shorter, through Edom instead of round it; but it would have been a way of war, on which God's blessing would not have rested. The length avoided loss. Our short cuts may be perilous; e.g; David ( 1 Samuel 27:1 ), Jeroboam ( 1 Kings 12:26-30 ).

III. THE ROUGHNESS OF THE WAY . Among rocky mountain defiles and treacherous foes. Portions of our pilgrimage are among the green pastures of peace; but others over hills of difficulty, intricate paths, and rugged mountain passes, and amidst powers of darkness that tempt us to despair. Illustrate Jeremiah in his trying and unpopular mission ( Jeremiah 12:5 , Jeremiah 12:6 ; Jeremiah 15:10-21 ).

IV. THE COMPANIONSHIPS OF THE WAY . Some of our comrades are complainers, and may infect us; others laggards, and tempt us to sloth; others apostates, who turn back and bring an evil report of the way beyond us (like Bunyan's Timorous and Mistrust). But God may be our companion to the end of the way ( Psalms 48:14 ; Psalms 73:24 ).

V. THE PROVISIONS OF THE WAY (verse 5). This a discouragement of their own seeking, and most culpable. Applicable to those who are dissatisfied with the truth provided as spiritual food for the pilgrimage (its quality, or quantity, or the means of imparting it, as though God must be expected to satisfy every intellectual whim). Applicable also to those who distrust the providence and promises of God in regard to temporal supplies. Our only safe course is to "walk in" ( Colossians 2:6 ) Christ, "the Way."—P.

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Numbers 21:4-9 (Numbers 21:4-9)

1 . The origin of the evil in the camp and in the world was the same sin.

2 . The fiery serpents apt "ministers" ( 2 Corinthians 11:15 ) of "the old serpent," and so sufferings and death the natural work of Satan, who "was a murderer from the beginning," and who hath the power of death ( Romans 6:23 ; Hebrews 2:14 ).

3 . The devil could have no power to injure "except it were given him from above." "The Lord sent the serpents "(cf. Isaiah 45:7 ; Amos 3:6 ; 1 Corinthians 5:5 ; 1 Timothy 1:20 ).

4 . The helplessness of the sufferers the same. A new life needed in each case. But neither herbs, nor cordials, nor caustics, nor charms could expel the poison from the blood. And neither reformation, nor tears, nor services, nor ceremonies can avert the consequences of sin.

5 . The remedy of Divine appointment. "God sent forth his Son" ( Romans 8:32 ; Galatians 4:4 , Galatians 4:5 ; cf. Wisdom 16:6, 7, 12).

6 . In both cases a resemblance between the destroyer and the deliverer. The brazen serpent a deliverer in the likeness of the destroyer; Christ a Saviour in the likeness of the stoner ( Romans 8:3 ). But the serpent was without venom, and Christ without sin.

7 . Deliverance was provided not by words, but by deeds. The Son of man, like the serpent, lifted up.

8 . In both cases a declaration of God's plan follows its appointment. Moses proclaimed to the camp the heaven-sent remedy, and "we preach Christ crucified."

9 . An appropriation of God's offer required: "when he looketh," "whosoever believeth." Salvation limited to those who trust.

10. No obvious connection between the means and the result. The serpent and the cross "foolishness" to the scoffer.

11. Saving faith impossible without "godly sorrow working repentance'' (cf. Numbers 21:7 ; Acts 20:21 ; 1 John 1:9 ).

12. The offer of salvation made to all, and the effect of faith alike in all. Cf. Numbers 21:9 and the world-embracing "whosoever."—P.

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Numbers 21:4-5 (Numbers 21:4-5)

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Numbers 21:4-9 (Numbers 21:4-9)

I. DESTRUCTION THROUGH THE SERPENT .

1 . It was through the serpent The Lord sent the fiery serpents. It is said that the district abounds in serpents which would be well described by the word fiery . But the Israelites were not allowed to consider the serpents as one of the perils of the district, into which they had fallen by some kind of chance. The Lord sent the serpents. Because the people ceased to trust in him, he delivered them to one of the dangers of the way ( Deuteronomy 32:24 ; Job 26:13 ; Jeremiah 8:17 ; Amos 9:3 ).

2 . The serpent rather than another mode of destruction was chosen. God in his wrath does not take the first weapon that comes to hand. If destruction, simply and only destruction, had been in view, doubtless there were other deadly creatures in the wilderness which might have served the purpose. But it is not enough for the people to die; the wag in which they die is also significant. Their thoughts are turned back to the very beginning and fountain of human troubles, to Eden before it was lost, and to the serpent who led our first parents into the ways of sin and death. As the serpent had to do with bringing sin into the world, so he is shown as having to do with the punishment of it.

3 . The destruction is represented as being in many cases complete. "Much people of Israel died." Probably some of the few aged still surviving and doomed to die in the wilderness ( Numbers 14:29 ) perished thus, confirmed in their rebellious spirit beyond remedy. Many of those bitten by a serpent toss awhile in pain, looking vaguely for a remedy, but, being ignorant of the original cause of their suffering, and not understanding that God has sent the serpent, they do not find the remedy, and then they die.

4 . But in other cases the destruction is incomplete. The bite of the serpent, with its effects, sets before us that gnawing consciousness of misery which comes to so many, and which no art of man can conjure away. Why were some bitten and others not? He who can answer that question can answer another—why some can go through life light-hearted, never having the weight of a wasted life on their consciences, never made miserable by anything save physical pain or disappointed selfishness, and happy at once if the pain and disappointment cease; while others so soon have the serpent poisoning their consciousness and filling them with a deep sense of the failure, sadness, and misery of natural human life. There are some who seem to have triple armour against the serpent-bite. Of the bitten ones, many had been no worse in their unbelief than some who remained unbitten. It is part of the mystery of life that it is not the worst man who is obviously in all cases the suffering one. Then of those who were bitten, some went on to death, others sought if there might be some means of deliverance. Many would give themselves up to fatalism and despair. Many do so still. The question for the miserable in conscience is, "Will you go on allowing the misery of the serpent-bite to eat out all that is salvable in you, or wilt you do as some of Israel wisely and promptly did in their sore distress, namely, turn to God? Only he who sent the serpents can take the venom of their bite away.

II. SALVATION THROUGH THE SERPENT .

1 . The cry for salvation contained in verse

7 . There is a show of repentance here, but we must not make too much of it. The people had talked in the same humble fashion before, saying they had sinned, yet soon showing that they did not understand what sin was ( Numbers 14:40 ); though perhaps the expression in Numbers 21:5 should be particularly noted—" the people spake against God." Hitherto their wrath had been vented on the visible Moses and Aaron. It is something that even in their murmurings they at last seem distinctly to recognize God as having a hand in the disposition of their course. And so now they put in the confession, "We have spoken against the Lord." This may have had more to do with the peculiar way in which God treated them than at first appears. Whether their repentance is good for anything will be seen if they bring forth such fruit of repentance as they will presently have the opportunity of manifesting. Note also the connection of the healing with the request of the people. If they had gone on in silent endurance they might all in course of time have died. Their confession of sin told the truth, whether they felt all that truth or not. The serpent-bite was connected with their sin. Observe also their approach to God through a mediator, one whose services they had often proved, yet often slighted, in the past. They come to Moses for a greater service than they have yet any conception of. Thus we are encouraged to make Jesus the Mediator of spiritual salvation and blessing, by considering' how often, while upon earth, he was the Mediator of salvation and blessing in earthly things. The God who is infinite in power and unfailing in love, and who gave through Jesus the lesser blessings to same, waits also to give through Jesus the greater blessings to all.

2 . As the destruction was through the serpent, so the salvation also. God sent the fiery serpents, and also the serpent of brass. There was nothing in it to save if Moses had made it as Aaron made the golden calf. It had not the efficacy of some natural balm. A bit of brass it was to begin with, and to a bit of brass in the course of ages it returned ( 2 Kings 18:4 ). So Jesus expressly tells us that in all his gradual approach to the cross he was carrying out his Father's will. All the process by which he was prepared to be lifted up was a process appointed by the Father. It was his meat and drink, that which really and truly sustained him, and entered as it were into his very existence, to do his Father's will and finish his work. When the brazen serpent was finished, fixed and lifted on the pole, this act found its antitype in that hour when Jesus said, "It is finished." All was finished then according to the pattern which God himself had indicated in the wilderness.

3 . As destruction was through a serpent, salvation also was through a serpent. "He was made sin for us who knew no sin." Jesus was lifted on the cross amid the execration and contempt of well-nigh all Jerusalem. In its esteem he was worse than Barabbas. To judge by the way the people spoke and acted, the consummation of all villanies was gathered up in him. It was a great insult, and so considered in the first days of the gospel, to proclaim him of all persons as Saviour of men. And so when Moses lifted up the brazen serpent it may have been received indignantly by some. "Do you wish to mock us with the sight of our tormentor?" When we look at Jesus in his saving relation to us, we are brought closer than ever to our own sins, and indeed to the sin of the whole world. We see him, the sinless One, under a curse, as having died on the tree, manifestly under a curse, groaning forth as the Father's face passes into the shade, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Forsaken of God, the holy One, forsaken of unfaithful and terror-stricken servants, hated by the world, we may well say that the semblance of the serpent sets him forth.

4 . And yet it was the semblance only. By the way men treated him, he appeared to be judged as a destroyer and deceiver, but we know that in himself he was harmless.

5 . There is the prominence of the saving object. The serpent was set upon a pole. We may suppose that it was as central and prominent an object as the tabernacle itself. It was to be placed where all could see, for there were many in the camp, and the bitten ones were everywhere around. And what Moses did for the brazen serpent, God himself, in the marvelous arrangements of the gospel, has done for the crucified Jesus. It is not apostles, evangelists, theologians who have pushed forward the doctrine of the cross; Jesus himself put it in the forefront in that very discourse which contains the deepest things of God concerning our salvation ( John 3:14 ). No one saw him rise from the dead; thousands saw him, or had the opportunity of seeing him, on the cross. We can no more keep the cross in obscurity than we can keep the sun from rising.

6 . The pure element of faith is brought in. Contrast the mode of God's treatment here with that employed when Aaron with his smoking censer stood between the living and the dead ( Numbers 16:47 ). On that occasion nothing was asked from the people. Aaron with his censer was the means of sparing even the unconscious. The mercy then was the mercy of sparing; now through the serpent it is the mercy of saving. The serpent was of no use to those who did not look. A man may long be spared in unbelief, but in unbelief he cannot possibly be saved. It is a great advance from sparing to saving. Thus the faith required was put in sharp contrast with past unbelief, which had been so sadly conspicuous and ruinous, gaining its last triumph a little while before in the fall of Moses and Aaron ( Numbers 20:12 ). The people were shut up to pure faith. If once in their great pain and peril they began to doubt how a brazen image of a serpent should save, then they were lost. If there had been anything in the image itself to save, there would have been no room for faith to work. If one serpent-bitten person had been healed without looking, that would have proved faith no necessity. But only those who looked were healed; all who looked were healed; and those who refused to look perished. Thus Jesus early began inviting a needy world to look to him with a spirit full of faith and expectation, and the more he seemed to a critical world incapable and presumptuous, the more he asked for faith. "After that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" ( 1 Corinthians 1:21 ).

7 . The salvation depends on the disposition of the person to be saved. Man fell with his eyes open and in spite of a solemn commandment and warning. And every man must be saved with his eyes open, turning himself intelligently; wholly, and gratefully towards the Saviour. There is everything to help the stoner if he will only turn. Some there might be in Israel who seemed too far gone even to turn their eyes, but doubtless God recognized the genuine turning of the heart. Though the eyes of sense beheld not the serpent, the eyes of the heart beheld, and' this was enough for healing. It was very helpful to be assured that there was one mode of healing, and only one, for only one was needed. It is only while we are cleaving to our sins that we find distraction and perplexity. There was distraction, anxiety, and fear in abundance as long as the Israelite lived in momentary terror of the fatal bite; but with the lifted serpent there came not only healing, but composure. God in sending his Son has not distracted us by a complication of possible modes of salvation.—Y.

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