I don’t need directions
If you would please open, you copy of the Scriptures to the book of Numbers chapter 21, starting in verse 4. Our text this morning is a very well know text and so I doubt that there is anyone here who has not heard someone preach or refer in some way to it.
However, I propose to you this morning that in many cases this text is often misunderstood and misrepresented by preachers and teachers of God's word. As we traverse down through the narrative this morning, my hope is that you will see the often communicated conclusion of salvation from death, not as the conclusion but rather the climax of a plot line that ends with a people dependent upon God.
Lets Read the text before we continue!
Do any of you own a GPS? I love my GPS and have sense the day I got it. However, as I started using it, I quickly realized that I thought differently on certain directions and in fact, when I had my GPS plugged in and my route planned, but I thought I knew where I was going, I would ignore it. But eventually I would realize I was lost and concede to its directions. Directions that always got me to my destination.
On one occasion, we were traveling to Pittsburgh to visit my grandparents. I had driven there from the Scranton area only once or twice, but my sister who was with us had done it several time and was familiar with the route. It didn't matter anyway since I had the GPS ready to navigate as took off and headed towards our destination.
About half way through the trip, we came to a part where my sister was fairly certain we needed to go one way, but the GPS was telling to go the other way. Immediately I began to question which one of the two is more dependable.
After all the GPS has never been on this trip, maybe it's wrong and I should follow what my sister said. Or maybe I should listen to the piece of equipment with a 8 satellites telling me where I am, how fast I'm going, where the next 6 DD are and what direction I need to take to get to my destination.
I listened to my sister! Then after 45 minutes later we turned around and went back the way the GPS had originally told us to go, adding over an hour and half to our overall trip.
Why do we do that? Why do we so often show lack of faith in the things that have proven to us over and over that they deserve our undivided faith and attention. This is the problem that the Israelites faced here in our narrative this morning.
The historical account of the Israelites and the bronze serpent is a very powerful account, however, before we can dig into what is happening in our selection of Scripture, we must first look as the context, or the events leading up to our passage.
The Israelites are coming towards the end of their wonderings in the wilderness. They are in the fortieth year of their travels through the desert and are well aware that they are on the brink of entering into the promised land. The first generation of travelers is quickly fading away as the second generation assumes seniority over the tribes.
Moses, in anticipation of being able to travel through Edom up to Canaan, sends messengers to ask the king of Edom for permission to travel through his country, avoiding, and extension on the final leg of their journey longer.
However, the King of Edom refuses them passage and forces the people to travel down around Edom instead. Shortly after this discouraging news, Aaron, their great high priest dies and the people are forced to bury him on Mt. Hor, where his son Eleazar is then made high priest.
This brings up us into chapter 21:1-3.
I would like to read the text for us here before we go on!
We can see that the Israelites were attacked by the King of Arad who at the time lived in the Negeb and had heard that the people were traveling through the land. As the King attacked, he took captives from among the people and brought them back to his own land.
The people of Israel responded by calling on the LORD and made a vow to the LORD that if he would deliver the cities of Arad into their hands, they would in turn deliver those same cities unto destruction. The LORD heard their calls and did as they asked and the people of Israel, the second generation had their first victory in war.
However, this is more than just a story of God's people being triumphant over an enemy. In fact, these first 3 verses in Numbers 21, play an central part in the interpretation of our selected passage this morning. As we look at each of the 4 distinct scenes found in the account of the bronze serpent, we must also make ourselves aware of the strong contrasts being made between each of the two narratives. It is only through the evaluation of these contrasts that we will be able to accurately understand the meaning of the text as we make current day application.
1. Israel grows frustrated over turn of events(v. 4)
Our first scene deals with the frustration that Israel began to show as they journeyed around Edom.
Verse text: vs. 4
"And the people became impatient on the way," is a phrase that talks of much more than just frustration. It is a soul felt, and personal discouragement welling up within the individual faced with adversity. In fact, the Hebrew words we translate as impatient actually mean "and their soul was shortened".
The Israelites were so close to being done with this long and painful trek that the thought of making it unnecessarily longer seemed too much to bare. They had reached the end of their ropes and their souls could not seem to bear the burden of a longer journey.
We see this all the time, don't we? People beat down by lose and adversity; with despair and frustration their only comfort. Their souls fed up and unable to carry the weight of their struggles any longer.
Maybe some of us have found ourselves in that position. I mean, Seminary classes just never seem to end and sometimes I wonder if I’m ever going to make it through, sometimes it seems like it’s all just too much to handle.
The question we have to answer is what do we do when we are confronted with these situations. Do we reflect on past situations where we have seen God carry us through and therefore call on Him again, or do we give in to the frustration and allow ourselves to become bitter? Israel had just seen God respond to their prayers when they were faced with the hardship of war, yet when faced with the continued hardship of wilderness travel, they did not call on God as they did before, but instead welcomed the bitterness of adversity and began to curse what had up until know kept them alive.
2. Israel complains about God’s Provision (vs. 5)
The second scene of our narrative reveals the actions of a people who are faced with hardship and have chosen not to remember what God had done for them, but have instead loath his provisions.
Read text: vs. 5
The eighth and final complaint and rebellion of Israel recorded here in the book of Numbers is there third complaint dealing with food and water. Each time the people complained about food, they did not focus on what God has provided for them as they traveled, but instead they harked back to the good old days in Egypt.
Maybe you remember from Numbers 11 where the people reminisced about the good food that they had while still in Egypt. “Oh, they said, that we had meat to eat”, and “how we remember the fish we ate that cost us nothing.” Which are interesting phrases coming from a people who were slaves in the land they were now remembering.
Then there is Numbers 20 and the account where Moses strikes the rock for the people as they complained about a lack of water. Again, the cry from the people against God and against Moses was concerning what they lost when they left Egypt. No mention is made as to the provisions God had made for them up until this point.
They didn’t have water at that moment and that was all they cared about. They saw an immediate need, and despite God’s faithful provisions throughout their history, they did not call to God, but instead complained against him.
Finally, here in verse 5, the people go one-step further and not only complain, but they essentially curse what God had provided.
We have no food, we have no water, and we loath this worthless food. It is typically understood by commentators, that “worthless food”, is referring to the manna that God provided to the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. However, what is interesting is the way in which they refer to it.
In the original language, the same word is used for both instances of “food”, the Hebrew word for bread (לֶ֫חֶם). In the phrase “worthless food” the word translated worthless literally mean “light” and so the phrase would be literally translated as “light bread”, which has the implication of a food that is insufficient to meet the nutritional needs of its consumer.
Another important note is the use of the Hebrew word for soul. As in verse 4 where it is used to refer to the people’s patience, here it is used to refer to their whole being.
You can imagine the people saying, “Why have you burdened us oh God with food unfit to support us, we were feed well and cared for in Egypt, but now we suffer with nothing.” They were disgusted by what God had provided for them and longed to eat the food of their slave masters. Instead of thankfulness to God for their delivery from slavery and his provisions and preservation from over the last 40 years, they cursed him by claiming his provisions detestable.
And when you call God’s provisions detestable, you call him detestable.
Why is it however, that when they called on the Lord to give them victory of the King of Arad, they did not complain about those provisions, yet they complain about food and call his sustenance worthless. Why is one provision acceptable and the other is not.
Don’t we do this sometimes? Don’t we ask for something from God and give thanks when he provides it, but at other time’s we ask for something and his provisions are different than our expectations and instead of thankfulness we show disappointment.
If we really believe that God provides for our needs, needs that are defined by what enables us to serve him, than wouldn’t we be thankful for everything that he gives and does not give to us.
3. Israel is punished and realizes their sin (vv. 6-7)
The third scene of our narrative shows the consequence Israel faced because of their contemptuous spirit towards God and their response towards the reality of their situation.
Read text: vs. 6-7
He had shown them provision through conquest and protection, through miracles and manna. Yet the people allowed themselves to grow weary. So now, his protection was lifted, and now the natural inhabitant of the land they traveled where released from God’s restraint.
God had wonderfully preserved his people from receiving hurt by them until they complained against him, so he chastised them with these animals, which had up until now had been kept from their camps.
One can only image the horrific nature of the scene as it unfolded. The sudden onslaught of deadly serpents took the Israelites by such surprise. The attacks against the crowds of people came with such violent ferocity and shock that before one person knew what was going on, his friend, and brother next to him was dead.
What is interesting about this account is how the people responded. In contrast to the attack by the king of Arad where the people were also taken by surprise they immediately made a vow to God for the favor of conquest. However, here in this account, their actions are not so quick to call on God.
An affliction often change men’s sentiment concerning God, and teaches them to value those provisions, which, at a former period, they had scorned. So there was no misunderstanding from among the people; they knew why this was allowed to happen. Therefore, immediately, after the attacks had begun the people realized that they brought this on themselves.
They knew that what was happening was not random, but deliberate and as all their sinfulness came rushing to their minds they were compelled to cry out for help, but instead of repeating their actions as recorded in verse 1-3, where they called on God, they instead called on Moses to intercede on their behalf. Now this was a responsibility of Moses for the people, he was a mediator, but they had sinned and their request to Moses did not represent a guilty conscience.
They had become sensitive to their sin against God and the harsh words spoken against Moses. They now understood they were being punished. However, this cannot be confused with Israel repenting because of their sin. They did not ask Moses to approach God’s for forgiveness, but to ask him for deliverance from the torment they found themselves in.
“Pray to the Lord that he take away the serpents from us” was their plea to Moses and although they acknowledged they had sinned, their remorse was a result of their punishment, not from their sinfulness.
This is kind of the like the phrase I’m sure we’ve have all heard people say, that goes like; “It’s not wrong unless you get caught”. The guilt is associated with the punishment, not the offense.
Now for those of us today who are born again, it is important to understand that God does not respond to our sins in the same way. We have been forgiven and God cannot hold us accountable for sins he has already provided forgiveness for.
However, we can gain application from this scene by praying that God would keep us sensitive to sin and our offenses against Him. We can pray that God would not let us give into the idea that it is only wrong if you get caught, and so I ask you this morning before we continue, are you sensitive to sin? Or are you simply watching out so that you don’t get caught?
The reason this is important to point out is because of its connection with how God responds to Moses’ petition. God does not do what the people had asked for. The Israelites had petitioned Moses to have God remove the serpents, however, God had other plans for their deliverance.
4. Israel is delivered from Death (vv. 8-9)
Our fourth and final scene reveals God’s plan of deliverance from death and the fiery serpents.
Read text: 8-9
Question, what does God do? How does he respond to the petition of Moses? Maybe, the best way to answer this is to discuss what God does not do. He simply does not heed their request!
But wait, they asked for deliverance and he provided it right. Yes and we will discuss this, however, they asked that the serpents be removed, but God did not remove the serpents, he instead gave them a way to avoid to consequence of death, which was a result of being bitten.
This is an important contrast between the account found in verses 1-3 and our story here. In the previous account, the people approached God first, showing an understanding of his sovereign authority over everything. They quickly displayed dependence on God as they approached a situation with an uncertain conclusion.
In our story, the Israelites did not display that dependence, but instead showed selfishness and faithlessness as they grumbled against God’s provisions and his apparent lack of ability to care for their needs.
So God gave them a choice!
He tells Moses in verse 8 to make a bronze serpent and place it on a pole and everyone who is bitten when he sees it shall live. Notice what God does not say. He does not tell Moses that the serpent itself would cure the people but instead that when they looked at it they would then be cured.
Two important notes must be made here to help us completely understand how this all unfolds.
First, God instructs Moses to put the serpent on pole. This was actually more of a directional flag or banner. During times before radio communication, armies would use drums and banners to direct and communicate to soldiers during battle. The word used here carries this same meaning. The Israelites were probably already used to watching directional banners point them in one way or another, so when a pole was raised; they already knew to look up. The question is, were they ready to follow the directions being given.
Secondly, the emphasis is put on the action of looking, rather than on the object of the gaze. In the original Hebrew, the word verse 9 translates as “look” means much more than shifting one’s eyes onto something. It carries more of an intensive type of action. It is a look with high regard and concern for what is being communicated by what one sees.
This is similar to when one is driving and familiar with the area, they might look at the road signs but pay very little attention to what they say, however, when they are lost, they pay much more attention to what those signs say.
The climax of our narrative peaks with God presenting Israel with an opportunity to choose his direction or death. They could follow the sign with the serpent that Moses held up. Or they could continue in their sinful faithless attitudes and die. God did not simply remove their punishment, but gave them a chance to act towards him in faith. He delivered them by allowing them to choose dependence on him.
So let me ask you this morning, are you dependant on him? Do you call on God for something’s and not for others? Do you trust your GPS? Do you trust your God?
We find the conclusion to our story in the Gospel of John.
John 3:14, 15 reads “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Just as the Israelites were cured by looking up at the serpent, so sinners are cured by looking upon the Son of Man. This is a look with complete regard to what is communicated and what Christ communicated on the cross was that he was willing to take the poison from our veins known as sin and bear it on himself leaving us cured. But we have to look!
Have you looked?