4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.5The people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.’6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.7The people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.8And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonousserpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Summary—Between Egypt, the land of captivity, and Canaan, the land of blessing, the Israelites wandered. Instead of rejoicing in this deliverance and hoping in its destination, they complained about its manna. By doing so, they were in fact complaining about the Bread of Heaven (Jn. 6:31-35). In any case, they complained, even going so far as to wish that they were back in Egypt! They did this first in Exodus 16, then again in Numbers 11:4, and finally a third time in our passage, Numbers 21:4-9. Since they longed for Egypt, which God had cursed, God cursed them, and He did so with an invasion of poisonous snakes. Although many died, it wasn’t long before God’s judgment produced its blessed fruit—repentance. In response to this corporate penitence, God provided a corporate solution: the sign of a serpent, lifted up on a pole where all could see; any Israelite who looked to that serpent in faith would be healed (years later, according to 2 Ki. 18:4, this serpent became an idol; be warned by Num. 21 not to neglect God’s signs and rites, and by 2 Ki. 18 not to idolize them). Isn’t it interesting that God’s prescription was a serpent? Not only were serpents unclean (Lev. 11:41-42)—ever since Genesis 3, they could not but embody sin and curse. Herein lies the meaning of the incident: by looking to One who would embody sin and curse on a pole (Gal. 3:13) we can be healed of real poison, sin. “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…” (Jn. 3:14).
Insight—About this incident, Matthew Henry said, “Oh that the venom of the old serpent, inflaming men’s passions, and causing them to commit sins which end in their eternal destruction, were as sensibly felt, and the danger as plainly seen, as the Israelites felt pain from the bite of the fiery serpents, and feared the death which followed! Then none would shut their eyes to Christ, or turn from his gospel. Then a crucified Saviour would be so valued, that all things else would be accounted loss for him; then, without delay, and with earnestness and simplicity, all would apply to him in the appointed way, crying, Lord, save us; we perish! Nor would any abuse the freeness of Christ’s salvation, while they reckoned the price which it cost him.”
Child Catechism—Who became a curse for us, and was lifted up to be looked to in faith for healing from sin? Jesus Christ.
Discussion—Do we feel sin as “sensibly” as the Israelites felt snake bites, as Matthew Henry wishes we did? If we did, would we value our crucified Savior more?
Prayer—O God, You are the Great Healer; and, whatever else we may need Your healing for, we need it for our sin more desperately. Grant that we may not, like Israel, fail to be satisfied with the Bread of Heaven; and, grant that when we do so fail, we would afterward look in faith to this same Bread, who was lifted up on a pole as our curse, and is now lifted up to Your throne as our advocate. Amen.
Contributed by Scott Cline