The Lord’s Day Evening

Numbers 21:1-9

With God in the Wilderness


Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

The last time we were together in Numbers, we were looking at the overwhelmingly sad and moving passage found in Numbers 20. In the midst of arduous demands of leadership in the wilderness, Moses is going to suffer family bereavement in the loss of his sister, serious opposition and complaints from the people of God, intense frustration from their rebellious spirit, a loss of temper that leads to him displaying publicly a disrespect for God that costs him entry into the Promised Land; and then in Numbers 20 he experiences a second family bereavement in the death of his brother, Aaron, and the subsequent transfer of the high priesthood.

By the way, as we reflect on what we studied together last time in Numbers 20, there is a direct encouragement for us in Moses’ own struggle. Perhaps you are personally discouraged because of your unrealistic expectations of what it means to live the Christian life, what it means to fight the good fight. Perhaps you think that real Christian heroes have uninterruptedly blissful marriages and family life, are completely united in heart and soul with the people with whom they serve or to whom they minister, never face opposition; or, if they do face opposition, face opposition always and only from the outside — from the world and from Satan, but never from the inside, from the family, from Christian friends and colleagues, from your own soul and your own sin. Well, be encouraged. Take a look at Numbers 20. There’s Moses, a man of God with problems galore in his family life, problems galore from the very people that he’s serving, and yet he is faithfully fighting the good fight. Maybe you’ve been discouraged because your experiences are like Moses’, but you think that if you were somehow doing things right you wouldn’t be having experiences like Moses. Well, here’s Moses walking faithfully and experiencing all these challenges.

Well, Numbers 20 taught us a lot. It taught us in Miriam’s death, and in Aaron and Moses’ death, the holiness of God and the uncompromising standard of His justice. In the Edomites’ refusal to allow Israel to pass through the land, not only does that refusal set up the story that we’re going to read tonight, but it also reminds us of an old quarrel and grudge…very old in the history of Abraham’s family…and it foreshadows the future national conflict and divine judgment that will come to play in Amos 1 and in the book of Obadiah. God’s grace in gathering Aaron to his people reminds us that despite Aaron’s sins, God numbers him among His people in his death. And above all (we said when we were looking at Numbers 20), the passage points us to Jesus, who is the Rock, who gives the river of life, and who gives to us a rest that Moses could not, and even Joshua could not.

Well, tonight we come to Numbers 21, and the first nine verses of this great chapter. It begins with a deadly challenge and a glorious victory; it continues with a now all too familiar whining and grumbling and complaining on the part of the people of God. It reveals to us the divine judgment. It displays for us a glorious salvation, and along the way it teaches us a hugely important truth about saving faith.

Let’s look to God’s word, then, and before we do so, let’s look to Him in prayer.

Heavenly Father, this is Your word. We ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Law. This we ask through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Hear the word of the living God:

“When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If You will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.’ And the Lord obeyed the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites; and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the people became impatient on the way. And the 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 loathe this worthless food.’ Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many of the people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent, and live.”

Amen. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

You know, after the victory at Hormah we might have expected Israel to be exultantly grateful, and to have recognized a certain formula for victory in relation to the opposing Canaanites: You pray; you do what God tells you to do; you experience victory over your enemies; and you praise God in gratitude. We might have expected Israel to be exultantly grateful and to have learned something from the opposition of this great Canaanite king in the Negev, and the subsequent victory that God had granted them over him. But we would be wrong to expect that. The children of Israel were not grateful, and they did not turn over a new leaf. They didn’t figure out what it was to walk with God rightly in the wilderness. No, Israel was going to have to go all the way around Edom through harsh territory, and in passing through that harsh territory, Israel did what Israel had done so many times before: she grew impatient, and she began to complain.

Lawrence of Arabia, early in the twentieth century, about 3,300 years after Moses and the children of Israel had made this great journey through the wilderness, through this same territory, this same terrain, this same wasteland that Israel was going through as it went the long way around Edom into the Promised Land. You know what he said about it? He said,

“This is a place of hopelessness and sadness deeper than all the open desert we had crossed. There was something sinister, something actively evil in this snake-devoted land, proliferant of salt water and barren palms and bushes which neither serve for grazing nor for firewood.”

In fact, Lawrence of Arabia describes them encountering hooded vipers and cobras, and blacksnakes in such great numbers that the men feared to walk in the night. As they would walk barefoot at night with snakes all over the ground, he said that even the bravest of his men were unmanned by this multitude of poisonous snakes that they encountered in this area. And so Israel grumbled.

Now, let me say just in passing that this is yet another passage in which the Bible attests to its own truthfulness to me. Because at one level you might think surely Israel would have learned their lesson. I mean, how many times have they complained this complaint? Couldn’t you give me some new material here, Israel? And yet when they do this, they’re acting just like me. This passage speaks of me and my sin, and of you and of your sin, and we’re never very creative in it. We go back to the same patterns over and over again. However patient and however gracious God is in His dealings with us, we repeat the same old cycles of sin over and over again. This passage speaks to me of the truthfulness of the Bible because it describes the sin, and the patterns and habits of sin in my own heart and life.

Well, there are four things that I want you to see tonight as we look through this great passage. The first is the gravity of Israel’s sin (you’ll see it in verses 4 and 5). The second thing is the just judgment of God (you’ll see it in verse 6). The third thing is the response of the people of God to God’s judgment (in verse 7); and then (in verses 8 and 9), the merciful provision of God.

I. Israel’s sin.

Let’s look first at the gravity of Israel’s sin. Israel dishonors God. Israel virtually blasphemes God in this passage. Israel is ungrateful in the face of God’s extraordinary generosity and provision for them in this passage, and we see something of the seriousness of Israel’s sin. At the end of verse 4, we read:

“…the people became impatient on the way, and the 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 loathe this worthless food.’”

Do you see five things that Israel does there?

First, Israel becomes impatient. Now, it’s understandable! You know, if they could just go through the land of Edom, Canaan’s not that far away. ‘If we could just go….’ But they can’t go that way. And so they’ve got to go the long way around, and they’ve got to go through a terrible region to get around Edom and into the Promised Land. And so it’s understandable that they’re impatient — but it’s not excusable. I mean, after all, this is at least in part the result of their own sin. The spies had gone into the land. They had told them of the good land. The majority of the spies had trembled; two of the spies had been faithful. The children of Israel followed the majority of the spies, and the mess that comes after their rejection of God’s command to them to go into the land is their own making. And so though it’s understandable that they’re impatient, it’s inexcusable.

Secondly, notice how they profanely and disrespectfully and irreverently speak against God and Moses. Who do these people think they are? Moses is God’s personally appointed mediator, and God is…well, He’s God! He’s the God who brought them out of Egypt. He’s the God who parted the Red Sea. And they speak against Him, and they speak against Moses. (Of course, we’ve never ever done such a thing, have we? We’ve never questioned God. We’ve never thrown the question back into His face, ‘What exactly are you doing, Lord? Do You know what You’re doing in my life?’ We’ve never questioned the way God has mediated His word to us.) And they profanely and disrespectfully and irreverently speak against God and Moses.

And thirdly, specifically, they have the gall to call into question God’s plan of redemption! Basically they accuse God of having a lousy plan. Now that takes some chutzpah! They speak against God and against Moses: ‘Why have You brought [us] up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There’s no food and water here. You’ve got a bad plan, God! This is not a good plan! It’s not a good path; it’s not a good plan; should have left us in Egypt.’

Fourthly, they doubt God’s ability to provide for them in the wilderness: “There’s no food and water here!” What’s He been giving you, people? Through the rock, He’s provided you water. Bread from heaven, He’s provided you food to eat. He’s brought quail so that you can have meat. “There’s no food and water here,” they say. They doubt God’s ability to provide for them in the wilderness.

And, fifth, they ungratefully denigrate God’s provision for them in the wilderness: “We loathe this worthless food!” You remember, my friends, that some of this food would be taken up before the children of Israel go into the land, and it will be put into the ark of the covenant. This is the bread of heaven. And yet they speak of it as worthless food. They ungratefully denigrate God’s provision for them in the wilderness.

So what do they do? They don’t acknowledge God’s power; they don’t appreciate His generosity; they don’t recognize His mercy; they don’t accept His sovereignty; and, they don’t trust His word–all rolled up into one. That’s how sinful their sin is. But, my friends, understand that every time we sin, we do the same thing. Every time we sin, every time we decide that we’re going to do it our way and not God’s way, we are doing the exact same thing as Israel. Don’t you point your finger back at them until you realize when we do it our way we’re doing the same thing.

Well, there’s the gravity of their sin. They dishonor God.

II. The judgment of God.

Now the judgment of God. You see it in verse 6. He sends fiery serpents–maybe it should be translated poisonous snakes.

“The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.”

Here we see the just judgment of God. The people sin; the people sin in complaining about the adversity of their circumstances, and so what does God do? He sends them more adversity. The people of God say, ‘Things are bad!’ God goes, ‘Oh, yeah? You want to see how bad things can get? You don’t think things can get worse? Watch this.’ They gripe at God because of their adversity; He sends just judgment.

You know, sometimes we only learn the lessons that we ought to learn in petty trials by facing greater ones. I can vividly remember my father offering me this encouragement on a number of occasions in growing up: “Son, we can either do this the easy way or the hard way.” Now, the hard way always entailed some painful form of corporal punishment. I was going to do whatever it was my father had instructed me to do. The choice was, was I going to do it with the corporal punishment (the hard way), or without it (the easy way). Here’s Israel in the wilderness: You’re going to do what God says. The question is will you do it the easy way or the hard way? They chose the hard way. Very often the lesson that we ought to learn in petty trials, we only learn by facing greater ones. You know, the irony is their complaints about their adversity led them not to relief, but to even greater adversity when the judgment of God rightly comes upon them for their sin.

You know, one of the great hymn writers of the church incorporates something of the wisdom of this truth into a very familiar hymn. Take your hymnals out and turn with me to 670. The great hymn, If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee, actually in, I think it’s the second stanza, catches something of this truth. Look at the language:

“What can these anxious cares avail thee?

These never ceasing moans and sighs?

What can it help, if thou bewail thee

For each dark moment as it flies?

Our cross and trials do but press

The heavier for our bitterness.”

If I could translate that into something of more contemporary idiom, it would go something like this:

“What good can your anxiety and worry do? What good is your constant moaning and sighing about your trials? What help is it if you simply regret your situation, or bemoan every hard thing that comes along?” [And then the punch line.] “Our crosses and trials, the hard providences that come into our lives, our crosses and trials only get heavier if all we are is bitter about them.”

Sometimes the lessons that we ought to learn in lesser trials we only learn in greater trials; and sometimes our very complaints of adversity only lead us to greater adversity. And the trials that we’re enduring aren’t lifted, they’re made heavier.

III. The people respond to God’s judgment.

God’s just judgment comes upon the people in the form of poisonous snakes, and people are dying. And this leads to an extraordinary response by the people. It’s a response of repentance and prayer. It’s the third thing I want you to see in the passage. You see it in verse 7.

The people come to Moses and say,

“We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.”

So God in His mercy uses this trial to move the people to repentance and prayer. The fact that they acknowledge their sin, that they seek God’s forgiveness, that they go to God’s personally appointed mediator and ask him to intercede is an indication that God in His mercy has used even this trial for their spiritual well being. And so they respond in repentance and prayer. God has used the trial to press them to the point where they recognize their need; they have responded to their need in repentance for their sin; they specifically confess their sin; and they seek God’s relief and forgiveness in prayer. Notice, they acknowledge their sin: “We have sinned”; they’re specific in their acknowledgement of their sin: “We have spoken against the Lord and against you”; and, they acknowledge that Moses is God’s appointed mediator: “Pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” In that last phrase they acknowledge that only God can give them the relief that they need. So the Lord has used this trial in order to move them to repentance and prayer.

The Scottish Congregationalist theologian, P.T. Forsythe, many years ago was reflecting on how God uses trials in our lives to draw us to himself, and he speaks of an illustration of a “joiner.” [Now, Derek, a joiner is kind of a carpenter, OK? So when he says “joiner,” just think “carpenter.”] This is what Forsythe said:

“The joiner, when he glues together two boards, keeps them tightly clamped until the cement sets. So with our calamities and depressions and disappointments that crush us into closer contact with God, the pressure on us is kept until the soul’s union with God is set; so that God, like a divine carpenter, will press us together to himself in trials until we stick to Him.”

And He has pressed Israel so hard in this trial that they have run to Him–what they ought to have done in the first place. There would have been an easy way to do this. They didn’t take the easy way. They took the hard way, but God in His mercy has led them to run to Him and look for help.

IV. God’s provision of mercy.

And then, you see the fourth thing here in verses 8 and 9: This merciful provision of God — life for only a look. Moses prays for the people (end of verse 7), and the Lord says to Moses (verse 8):

“ ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

Now, there’s a sermon series in these couple of verses, but let me just draw your attention to a few things.

First of all, God gives a solution to this situation that has no human explanation for its effectiveness. The archeologists and the Old Testament commentators go wild in their discussion of why it is that God chooses a copper snake on a pole as the solution for Israel’s sin. Some of them point out, for instance, that we have discovered at Kemah, near this area, an old Midianite sanctuary in which there was — guess what? — a copper snake on a pole. Others, like our friend John Currid, pointed out that in Israel there would have been an experience of people who worshiped snakes. Where? Back in Egypt. What had the children of Israel been complaining about? “Lord, why did You bring us out of this wonderful place, Egypt?” And so suddenly, for salvation, instead of looking up to a snake that they worship, they look up at an image of snakes that are killing them, and God makes them look to that snake for the sparing of their lives–simultaneously, perhaps, rubbing His finger into the nose of the false Egyptian god and rubbing His finger in the nose of their desire to go back to Egypt. But whatever the case is, why ever God chose the brazen serpent, the copper serpent, as the sign, look at what’s happening here.

First of all, what’s on the pole? Snake. OK. What are snakes doing here? They’re killing people. Why are snakes killing people? The judgment of God. What’s the copper snake on the pole a picture of? It is a picture of God’s just judgment on Israel for their sin.

Secondly, isn’t it interesting that in other Hebrew sacrifices when the representative was being prepared to be slain in your place for your sin, what did the head of the family have to do? You had to touch the representative sacrifice. Here all they do is look. Just look. They look away from themselves and to this symbol, this sign God has provided. Can you imagine a more dramatic way to emphasize that Israel has nothing to do with the sparing, forgiving, saving power that God is going to display in the healing of them from the bites of these poisonous snakes? They are contributing zippo, zilch, nothing, nada! All they have to do is look! (That is, by the way, why we sang My Faith Looks Up to Thee.) Is this not the essential act of saving faith? Looking to Christ…looking away from ourselves, from our good deeds and our bad deeds, and looking to Him alone? Surely this is one of the reasons why Jesus will point to this passage when He’s trying to explain faith to Nicodemus. You remember that this is the passage that Jesus goes to eventually when He’s speaking to Nicodemus. Before He said,

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”

…before He says that, Jesus says,

“[Nicodemus,] As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world….”

In other words, Jesus says to Nicodemus just as the people had to look at that brass serpent, simply trust on God’s word of promise that if you will look at the serpent you will be saved, so also we must look to Christ and Him crucified.

But of course there’s something a little bit different about what we see when we look to Christ and Him crucified. The copper snake was a picture of God’s vehicle of just judgment on Israel for their sin. But the cross of Christ is a picture of God’s just judgment on sin…but there’s a problem. If it’s just a picture of God’s just judgment on sin (like the snake), who would be on the cross? If it were just a picture of God’s just judgment, it would be you and me, but it’s not.

There’s a substitute there. There’s God’s own Son. And He is bearing a just judgment that you deserve. Because in the final analysis, the cross is not only a picture of God’s just judgment, but of His lavish mercy in providing for you a substitute, to whom all you have to do is look and live.

Let’s pray.
Our Lord and our God, we thank You for the merciful provision that You have given to us in the cross of Christ, and we ask, O Lord, that we would look…when we see Him there, there in our place, there for us, there bearing our just judgment…when we look, that we will live. For You have promised in the greatness of Your love for the world, that in sending Your only begotten Son, that whosoever would believe on Him, whosoever would look on Him as He is lifted up, will not perish, but have everlasting life. Heavenly Father, we’ve already sung tonight that we don’t understand how it is that we ought to get life from his death, but, O God, we believe it. And we thank You for it, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let’s take out our hymnals and turn to this great hymn, No. 506, and sing back God’s word to Him.

[Congregation sings: As When the Hebrew Prophet Raised]