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With God in the Wilderness (28) Snakebit

The Lord’s Day

October 7, 2007

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

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!”
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

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

What can it help, if thou bewail

For each dark moment as it

Our cross and trials do but

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.
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.

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

sings: As When the Hebrew Prophet Raised]

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