And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. — Numbers 21:8
Many situations in life necessitate immediate action. If your child falls and hits his head, and the blood is gushing out, you know he needs medical attention. If the oil light on your car dashboard starts flashing, you know to stop immediately and call for mechanical help. If you hear your garage door open in the night and you see someone getting into your van to steal it, you know to call the police. If a water pipe breaks in your house and a flood is pouring into your basement, you know to turn off the water supply and call a plumber. Some of the situations we face can be life-threatening. Others may be expensive or just inconvenient. Yet, we know to take action!
In our text, the Children of Israel faced a situation that was life-threatening. When the fiery serpents bit the people, they died. There was no help until God instructed Moses to make a serpent of brass and put it on a pole where all the people could see it. If those who had been bitten looked at the serpent, they were healed immediately. If they refused, they died.
The brass serpent pointed ahead to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross as a remedy for the sins of mankind. To be “lifted up” referred to crucifixion. The comparison between the brass serpent in Moses’ day and the Cross of Christ helps us better understand the meaning of God’s grace in salvation. All of us come into this world infected by sin and will one day die and face judgment, but if we look by faith to Christ, He will save us and give us eternal life. It is our only hope of eternal life, and action needs to be taken immediately!
After Aaron died, the Israelites completed their mourning for him, and then went back on the road and into battle. In verse 1 of the text, we see that some Israelite spies were taken prisoner. This prompted Israel to vow to God, and God was with them in the battle that followed.
Yet, soon after their victory, the people became impatient because of the difficulty of the march, and started complaining again. Eventually they spoke harshly against the Lord and Moses. It was a familiar complaint: Moses had brought them out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, and there was nothing to eat except manna. In the difficulties of the daily march, they had forgotten that God had promised to give them the Promised Land.
As punishment for their rebellion, the Lord sent “fiery serpents” to bite them. Many of the people of Israel died. The Israelites recognized their sin and went to Moses and confessed it, asking that he pray for them. When Moses prayed for the people, God told him to make a serpent of brass and put it on a pole. Moses obeyed, and as God had said, all those who looked at the serpent of brass lived. Of course, the serpent on the pole did not heal them. It was God who healed them when they demonstrated their faith and obedience by following the instruction to look.
The brass serpent prefigured Christ bearing the judgment of our sin (on the Cross). It was the only cure available, and each person had to look for himself — just as Jesus’ Blood is the only cure for sin and each sinner must repent for himself.
Verse 17 says that Israel sang a song, which was certainly better than complaining. This was the first song that we are told of them singing since their song after they were delivered from Egypt. What a long time without a song to the Lord!
The last of the chapter addresses two more enemy encounters. Israel asked the Amorites, as they had earlier asked the Edomites, for passage through their land. Permission was denied and a military attack ensued. God gave Israel the victory, and the Amorites were defeated. When they faced King Og and his forces, God told Moses the victory was theirs even before the battle began.
(Hannah’s Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
II. The journey from Sinai to the plains of Moab
D. The journey to Moab
5. The defeat of Arad at Hormah (21:1-3)
6. The murmuring and the serpent (21:4-9)
7. The journey to Pisgah (21:10-20)
8. The victory over Sihon (21:21-32)
9. The victory over Og (21:33-35)
In the wilderness, the people had only to look, and they lived. Looking to the bronze serpent saved people from physical death, but looking to Christ saves us from eternal death.