The Serpent upon a Pole

“The people spoke against God and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” —Numbers 21:5-9

THIS EXPERIENCE OCCURRED after the Israelites had left Egypt and had been wandering in the wilderness for nearly forty years. Although they did not realize it, they were almost at the end of their wilderness journey,

They had been camped at Kadesh—about halfway between the Red Sea and the Promised Land, Canaan. It was a relatively short journey to Canaan if they followed the northern route through Edom. But because that land was occupied by their enemies, the descendents of Esau, they made the decision to avoid it. Instead they went south to the headwaters of the Red Sea, then east around a range of mountains. From this point they went north into the hot, dusty wilderness of Arabah, a desert with neither food nor water.

As a result of this weary journey, the people became very disheartened and discouraged. They were a living example of the adage, “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.” (Prov. 13:12) How quickly they had forgotten. the miraculous parting of the sea, the destruction of the Egyptian forces as the waters covered the army which followed them, the provision of their need for water by not only the sweetening of bitter waters, but also, on another occasion, the gushing of water out of the struck rock. More than these one-time miracles, they had a daily reminder of God’s providences on their behalf as they gathered the Manna. Undoubtedly it was a wonderful, nourishing food, yet they grew tired of it, and they sorely murmured, expressing a longing for their gardens which overflowed with fresh produce.

God rightly considered that their murmurings were directed against him. So, he allowed poisonous snakes to enter the nation and soon thousands were dying from their bites. If nothing had been done, they all would have been dead. The people understood why they were having this experience and they appealed as a body to Moses that he should pray to God on their behalf. They realized that it was only after they had lost their trust in him—“first gone astray that they were afflicted.”—Ps. 119:67

Lessons for Us

The Apostle Paul referred to this lesson to the Israelites in one of his letters. He wrote, “Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples [Margin: ‘types’] and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.”—I Cor. 10:9,11

What ‘admonition’ should we be taking from this? First of all we should daily remind ourselves of God’s providences on our behalf. Let us not think of our present ‘wilderness journey’ as too severe, and secretly wish for some direct, non-stop march to our Promised Land. We may not know it, but our deliverance may indeed be much closer than we realize!

Another lesson we can find is that trials and testings are used by God to prove our steadfast courage and faith. It is only through patient endurance of all life’s experiences that our character is developed and our progress demonstrated. As difficult as these vicissitudes may be, they are really necessary to our victory as followers of Christ.

Yet another lesson may be that these adversities and afflictions are instruments God employs to keep us in a condition of repentance. We, like sheep, can go astray. When we do, it may take some hard experiences to bring us to our senses. How reassuring it is to know that our Heavenly Father, just as the father in our Lord’s parable of the prodigal son, is always there with open arms to welcome us back into his abode.—Luke 15:20

The experience the Israelites had with the serpents has more depth of instruction for us than just an account of the punishment of an ungrateful people. It contains an interesting type, one so important that our Lord Jesus himself drew our attention to this lesson, as we will see, later on.

The Poison and its Antidote

The serpents may have been called ‘fiery’ because of their sting, or perhaps because of their shiny copper color. The Hebrew word translated “brass” means ‘copper’, and is so rendered in Ezra 8:27. We realize that in the Bible the serpent is used as a symbol of sin. Satan, the great adversary of God, is depicted as a serpent both in Genesis 3:4 and in Revelation 12:9, and as the Apostle Paul put it, “The sting of death is sin.”—I Cor. 15:56

The Israelites had no hope of saving themselves from these serpents. They were either dead or would surely die. Once again their salvation came through a miracle performed by God, but only by means of an unusual method outlined by the Lord. They were instructed that a replica of a serpent should be made of copper and nailed high upon a pole. It was promised that any who looked upon it would recover from the poison. Those who refused to look upon it would die.

Think of that! Suppose you were there at that time, and had just been told that if you just looked at a replica of what had just bitten you, you would be healed. It must have sounded preposterous, and would certainly require a great deal of faith to believe that such an act could do any good! But they had no other choice than to try it—in their perilous predicament there was nothing for anyone to lose. As those who did look up to the brazen serpent became whole, the faith of others would grow stronger, and soon all would, in faith, gaze upon the wooden pole with the serpent hanging upon it, where salvation could be found!

The world is in much the same condition today. It has been ‘bitten’ by the serpent of sin, and all mankind is either dead, or dying. There is no other hope of salvation—life is possible only by looking to the one who was nailed to a “pole.” And that one is Jesus.

Jesus referred to this circumstance, showing that he was illustrated by the brazen serpent. As recorded in John 3:14-16, Jesus spoke with Nicodemus, saying: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

When Jesus spoke of himself as being ‘lifted up’, he was referring to his crucifixion, his death upon the cross. He used a similar expression (John 8:28), when talking with the Pharisees: “Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man.” Although it was actually the Roman government who carried out the actual crucifixion of Jesus, God held the Pharisees and leaders of Israel responsible for this atrocity for they were the ones who exerted pressure on the Romans to carry out the terrible deed.

Although the symbol of the serpent upon the pole as a type of Jesus on the cross was clearly explained by no less an authority than Jesus himself, some have difficulty accepting the idea of Jesus’ being pictured by a serpent, since the symbol had been used early in the Bible to illustrate Satan, who appeared as a shining ‘serpent’ in the Garden of Eden, claiming to be a friend of Adam and Eve. But he possessed the deadly poison of sin. Jesus, appeared as a shining example of human perfection, and he carried in his body the antidote for the fatal poison of sin.

Note the apostle’s words: God “hath made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin for us who [Jesus] knew no sin.” (II Cor. 5:21) The Diaglott suggests that we read the words “made him to be sin” as “made him a sin-offering,” pointing to Hosea 4:8 as proof that the word ‘sin’ would sometimes better be translated as ‘sin-offering’. Paul also wrote, “God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.”—Rom. 8:3

Jesus came as the gift of God to die on the cross so that all mankind could be healed. from the painful sting of sin and death. (John 3:16) And what must one do to be healed? They must accept that sacrifice, they must “look” on him. This sounds like as preposterous a solution to be healed to mankind, as the solution sounded to the Israelites! How can such a simple action do any good at all? But mankind has no other choice, as Peter said during his great witness on the Day of Pentecost, nearly two thousand years ago: “There is no other name under heaven which has been given among men by which we can be saved.”—Acts 4:12, Diaglott

Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said signifying what death he should die.” (John 12:32,33) How thankful we are that our Lord Jesus, who was lifted up at Calvary, lowered into the tomb, to be afterward resurrected to the highest form of life in the universe, will soon be manifested to all. Today this manifestation is limited to those whom the Father calls: “No man taketh this honor unto himself but he that is called of God, as was Aaron.” (Heb. 5:4) But in his soon-coming kingdom, he will be manifested in great power and glory.

“He showed me a pure river of water of life … and on either side of the river was there the tree of life. … And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse … and they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. … And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”—Rev. 22:1-4,17

Dawn Bible Students Association
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