We’ve been going through the book of Numbers for a number of months now; and it tells the story of what happened in the wilderness after God rescued his people from Egypt and as they made their way to the Promised Land of Canaan.
In the opening chapters, the Lord commanded Moses to count the men who would serve in the army; and to count the Levites who who serve in the tabernacle. And they set up the tabernacle as the Lord commanded and brought offerings to dedicate it to the Lord. They celebrated the Passover to remember and to give thanks to the Lord for rescuing them from their captivity. And then they set off on their journey. And almost immediately the people began to complain. And that’s been one of the recurring themes throughout the book, because the people complained again and again. They complained about their general hardships. And they complained because they wanted meat to eat. And they complained they did not have enough water. And they complained about Moses and Aaron, whom the Lord appointed as their leaders. And, of course, when they came to the border of Canaan, they complained that the Canaanites were too strong for them; and they wouldn’t be able to take over the land; and they should return to Egypt.
And so, they refused to enter the Promised Land when they had the chance. And because of their sinful, unbelieving hearts, the Lord decreed that none of that generation — apart from Caleb and Joshua — would enter the Promised Land. They would all die in the wilderness; and their children would enter the land in their place.
And so, these pilgrims on the way to the Promised Land complained and moaned and they doubted the Lord and his promises. And we too are pilgrims on the way, because the Lord has delivered us from Satan’s tyranny; and he’s leading us to the new heaven and earth, which is our Promised Land. And as the writer to the Hebrews warns, we must see to it that none of us has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. And we must encourage one another so that we’re not hardened by sin’s deceitfulness; and we must not harden our hearts, as they did, but must continue to trust in the Lord always.
Verses 1 to 3
In today’s passage, the people once again complained to the Lord. But before we get to that, we have the brief account of this encounter with the Canaanite king of Arad. We’re told that when he learned the Israelites were coming, he attacked them and captured some of them.
And so, the people turned to the Lord and made a vow to the Lord, a solemn promise. They said to the Lord: if you deliver these men into our hands — and they’re referring to the men who had attacked them — we will totally destroy their cities. Well, the NIV has a helpful footnote which explains that ‘totally destroying’ something was a way in those days of giving it to the Lord. So, if the Lord helped his people to defeat the Canaanites, they wouldn’t keep any of the booty for themselves, but would devote it to the Lord entirely.
The same thing happened when they attacked Jericho in the book of Joshua. They weren’t to keep anything for themselves, but were to devote everything in Jericho to the Lord by destroying it. In other words, when the Israelites attacked the king of Arad and his men in Numbers 21, and when they later attacked Jericho, they weren’t motivated by greed. Their intention was not to make themselves rich. No, they were acting as the Lord’s servants who had appointed them to punish the Canaanites for their wickedness. The Lord had put up with their sins for more than four hundred years — the whole time that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt — and now he was sending the Israelites to punish the Canaanites for their wickedness.
The Lord heard the plea of his people; and he gave the Canaanites over to them. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns so that the place was named Hormah, which means ‘destruction’.
Every time we read about how the Israelites were enabled by the Lord to destroy their enemies, it should make us think of the coming day of judgment, whenever the Lord will come with his angels to judge the living and the dead and to condemn all who refused to repent and to believe in his Son. When the Lord judged the nations for their wickedness in the Bible it was a foretaste of the even greater day of judgment which is coming on the whole world. And so, we must repent and believe in the only Saviour, so that we will not be condemned with those who do not believe. And we should give thanks to the Lord, because we know that we deserve to be condemned, but the Lord sent his Son to save us.
But, of course, we should also note the Lord’s faithfulness to his people. In the past, he was faithful and provided them with food and water in the wilderness. On this occasion, when they were faced with enemies, the Lord enabled them to defeat their enemies and presumably to deliver those who were taken captive. The Lord was faithful and they should have learned the lesson that they could always trust in him. But, as we’ll see, they did not learn the lesson; and they continued to complain and to doubt the Lord.
Verses 4 to 9
And so, we read in verse 4 that the people grew impatient on the way; and they spoke against the Lord and against Moses, their leader. And they complained because they think they’re going to die in the wilderness. There’s no bread, they said. But there was bread, because the Lord provided them with manna every day. There’s no water, they said, but the Lord has always led them to water. But then they added:
We detest this miserable food!
Presumably they’re referring to the manna, which means they were despising God’s good gift to them. Instead of giving thanks to the Lord, they despised his gifts.
And so, although this was the new generation of Israelites, who had been born in the wilderness, they were just like the previous generation, because this new generation also possessed sinful, unbelieving hearts, so that they doubted the Lord’s goodness; and they thought they would have been better off in Egypt. Well, as a result of their sin, the Lord sent these venomous snakes among them. Other translations say they were fiery snakes. They might have looked fiery because of their colour; but perhaps they were known as fiery snakes because their bite caused a fiery, burning inflammation. In any case, many of those who were bitten by the snakes died.
In their distress, the people went to Moses and they confessed to him that they had sinned when they spoke against the Lord and against him. And they appealed to Moses to pray for them and to ask the Lord to take away the snakes. Well, Moses was their mediator: the one who was able to make peace between God and the people. As such, he points forward to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the final and best Mediator between God and sinners; and who has made peace between us by his death on the cross; and who now lives to intercede for us at the Father’s right hand. And so, just as the Israelites appealed to Moses, so we appeal to Christ, because whoever trusts in him has peace with God.
But on this occasion, the Lord did not remove the snakes. Instead he instructed Moses to make a copy of the snakes and put it on a pole so that everyone would be able to see it. And the Lord promised that anyone who has been bitten and looks at the snake on the pole will live and not perish. And so, Moses made a snake out of bronze to look like the deadly snakes. He put it on a pole. And sure enough, anyone who was bitten and looked at it lived and did not perish. Though they deserved to perish because of their sins, they were allowed to live and to continue on their journey to the Promised Land. The power, of course, was not in the bronze snake, for it was only a sign to reveal to them the Lord’s willingness to pardon all who believed his promise and looked at the snake.
The Lord Jesus referred to this story when he was talking to Nicodemus in John 3. He said to Nicodemus that just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so he — the Son of Man — will be lifted up that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. He was foretelling how he would be lifted up on the cross to bear the punishment we deserve and to suffer in our place the curse for our sin. For God so loved the world — the Lord went on to say — that he sent his one and only Son that whoever believes in him — in the Son of Man who was lifted up on the cross for sinners — shall not perish but have eternal life.
Just as the Israelites deserved to perish in the wilderness, without reaching the Promised Land, so we deserve to die and to perish, far away from the new heaven and earth; but by believing in God’s one and only Son we are pardoned by God and we receive the free gift of eternal life.
And so, this passage of the book of Numbers — like the rest of the book — points us to Christ, the only Saviour, and to the good news of the gospel. The destruction of the Canaanites was a foretaste of the coming day of judgment; and it shows us our need of a Saviour. Moses’s intercession points forward to Christ who is the final and best Mediator between God and sinners and who has established a lasting peace between us by his death on the cross. And by commanding Moses to lift the snake on the pole, the Lord was revealing how his only Son would one day be lifted on a cross for our eternal salvation.
And so, as pilgrims on the way to the new heaven and earth, we must see to it that none of us has a sinful, unbelieving heart which will cause us to complain about the Lord and to doubt his love and faithfulness towards us. Instead, as members together of Christ’s church in this place, we must encourage one another so that none of us is hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We must encourage one another to hold firmly to the end our confidence in Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world. So, we must always trust in Christ our Saviour; and we must obey him and do his will as he leads us along the narrow way that leads eventually to our eternal rest in the new heaven and earth.