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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Expositor's Dictionary of TextsExpositor's Dictionary

Verses 1-35


Numbers 21:4

I. Discouragement is a cause of failure. What are its causes?

1. It may be a result of bodily weakness. The better heart you can keep, the better your strength and health is like to be.

2. Modesty and earnestness. There are people to whom modesty, or what looks like it, may become a snare.

Remember that pure modesty and simple earnestness will not cause discouragement. There must be dross in them in order to do that. Modesty, knowing itself little, will be prepared to do what is little, and earnestness will be keen to do the little well.

3. The great cause of discouragement is pride. It may hide behind modesty or earnestness, or mix itself up with these; but there it generally is. We are apt to forget that it is one and the same sort of heart which is vain of being in front, or mortified at being behind. Is it not that you could do a little, but wanted to do much? You thought you could be good in a hurry, and are not content to plod along? Or you thought you were fully ready for the joys and blessings of a Christian; his sure trust, his comforts in trouble, his stay of faith, his delight in God, and his pleasure in God's worship. And behold you get a little way, and you find it all disappointing. Like the men of Israel in the wilderness, you say, 'Our soul loatheth this light bread'. And you do not see that what discourages you is really, if you take it patiently and humbly, a sign that you are getting on. Egypt with its leeks and its onions, those coarse things you relished once, is left behind, and you are on the way to the heavenly country, if only you will not throw up, if only you will persevere.

4. Double-mindedness. When one sways backwards and forwards between serving God and pleasing one's self, between doing right out and out or letting it go and doing wrong, no wonder we get discouraged.

5. Indolence. How much discouragement, grumbling, and downheartedness come simply from being 'weary in well-doing,' and giving in to the weariness.

II. The means by which we may be saved from this great danger of discouragement.

The promise of God's most ready and kind forgiveness, if we have got far wrong, and begin, although feebly, to work backwards towards Him; the promise of God's sufficient grace, and of His mercy still going with us, although we keep stumbling, so long only as we do not stop or go back, but struggle on; the promise for those who have long served God, that He will never leave them, that He will complete the good work which He has begun, that discouragement is only another trial through which they may be schooled for Him. The whole aim of God's work for us is to bring us to joy. It is a bold saying of Mr. Ruskin, that the only duty which God's creatures owe to Him, and the only service they can render to Him, is to be happy. But it is deeply true; it echoes the Apostle's words, 'Rejoice alway'.

III. Whatever there is in us of the things which make man's answer to God, of faith, hope, and love, goes to drive out discouragement, with its clouded thoughts and cold, spiritless distrust.

But there are special helps.

1. The experience of God's people.

2. If you steadily use your Bible, you will find there is no help like it against discouragement, just because it shows you so tenderly that you are not alone in bearing its burdens and fighting against its danger.

3. Only, to take this comfort and to stand in this hope, there must be humility. We must be humble enough to tarry, if God will; to bear what we deserve; to turn the murmurings of discouragement into the words of true repentance.

4. There is the great help of prayer: prayer in that largest sense in which it includes the praise, by which we tell over those great acts of God, or those glories of His Being, which are the ground of our hope.

Bishop Talbot, Sermons Preached in the Leeds Parish Church, 1889-95, p. 15.

References. XXI. 4, 5. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Sunday Lessons for Daily Life, p. 344. XXI. 4-9. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxix. No. 1722. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, p. 362. XXI. 8. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. v. No. 285.

The Brazen Serpent

Numbers 21:9

In the history of the wandering, we recognize in Jehovah not merely the bountiful Lord Who supplies His people's wants, but the skilful and merciful Physician Who heals His people's diseases. In both capacities alike He demands adoration, He deserves gratitude, He justifies confidence.

I.. A Spiritual Malady. 1. A poisonous malady. The serpent's bite is in its virulence symbolical of sin.

2. A destructive malady. As the serpent's bite was death-dealing, so sin destroys the moral nature and the eternal prospects of men.

3. A widespread malady. The serpents committed devastation throughout the camp of Israel. There is no region inhabited by mankind where the mischievous and disastrous effects of sin are not known.

II. A Divine Remedy. Our Lord Himself has authorized the parallel between the serpent of brass and the crucified Redeemer.

1. Observe the participation of the Saviour in the nature of those He came to save. As the healing object was in the form of the destroyer, so Christ, Who knew no sin, became sin for us.

2. Observe the publicity of the remedy. The brazen serpent was reared on a banner-staff and set on high, and in like manner Christ was lifted up to draw all men unto Himself.

III. The Means of Salvation. As they who looked towards the serpent of brass received healing and life, even so those who direct the gaze of faith to the crucified Redeemer of the world experience His healing virtue.

IV. Spiritual Recovery. The healing of the obedient Israelites seems to have been both instantaneous and complete. And we are assured that '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'.

References. XXI. 9. W. H. Hutchings, Sermon-Sketches (2nd Series), p. 141. W. J. Knox-Little, Church Times, vol. xxxi. 1893, p. 356; see also Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. 1893, p. 227. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxv. No. 1500.

The Song of the Well

Numbers 21:16-18

The drawers who sang this song knew that their well was alive. They called to each other to sing back to it: the verb means to sing in antiphon, to answer the music of the waters with their own.

I. In such a song I find much inspiration. We are all, whatever our callings may be, ministers of the common life, with the constant need to ennoble and glorify its routine. All of us who are worthy to work, have to do with wearisome details; and as it were, like those Eastern water-drawers, hand over hand every day upon the same old ropes. And the tendency of many, even of those whose is the ministry of the Word and the Church, is to feel their life dreary and their work cheap. There is not a bit of routine, however cheap our unthinking minds may count it, but it was started by genius. In manual toil, in commerce, in education, in healing, and in public service, not a bit of routine rolls on its way but the saints and the heroes were at the start of it. Princes dug this well, yea the nobles of the people delved it with the sceptre and with their staves.

II. But the Light, which lighteneth every man that cometh into the world, Himself took flesh and dwelt among us. Among the million memories of men we have one that is unique. We can trace the sacredness and glory of our life today, not only to this or that great man whom God raised up to think and to work, but to the Incarnation of God Himself. In the person of Jesus Christ, God Himself did dig these wells of ours. The liberties, offices, and inspirations were opened and fulfilled by Jesus Christ. See how His parables reveal Him in touch with every common office of society!

The parables are the measure of the breadth of our Lord's Incarnation; but His Temptation, His Pain and Weariness, His Shame of the world's sin, His Agony and Forsakenness, His Cross and Death, are its depths.

When we remember breadth and depth alike, we understand how sacramental every hour of life may be.

III. These religious uses of memory, we are now ready to apply to that routine, to which we are bound as members and ministers of Christ's Church. I do not mean the life of the Church as a whole, but the work and conduct of the single congregation. Of no other routine in social life may we more justly say that princes digged this well, that the nobles of the people delved it with the sceptre and with their staves.

The influence of the Christian congregation upon history, the contribution of the parish to the world, is a subject which is waiting for a historian. He will lay bare a thousand almost forgotten wells which from all the centuries still feed some of the strongest currents of human life.

G. A. Smith, The Forgiveness of Sins and Other Sermons, p. 218.

Beer, Or the Digging of the Well By Staves

Numbers 21:16-18

The traveller in Switzerland, as he approaches Zermatt, has his attention generally so absorbed in contemplating the magnificence of the Matterhom, that for a time he retains scarcely any impression of the neighbouring heights. In a similar manner the mind of the Church of Christ has been so fixed upon the lifting up of the brazen serpent and its miraculous effects, that the subsequent incident at Beer has been wellnigh forgotten. The object of my sermon is to draw attention to some of the more patent teachings of the digging of the well on the eastern border of Moab.

The giving of the manna and the miraculous supply of the water represent the Divine side of redemption; the serpent lifted up by human agency and the well dug up by human hands speak of the earthly side.

I. We Notice, First, God's Promise. God said to Moses, 'Gather the people together, and I will give them water'. God alone could supply the water for His people. 'I will give them water.' And yet human agency is to be employed. 'Gather the people together.... The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their staves' (Numbers 21:5 ; Numbers 21:18 ). This they could do, and what they could do God expected from them. It is so with us. God makes promises, but we are to use the means which He provides.

II. Notice that the 'Princes Digged it, by the Direction of the Lawgiver'. When the rock was smitten in Horeb, it was smitten 'in the sight of the elders of Israel'; but here the well was dug by them.

III. Observe that they Dug with their Staves. They needed spades and mattocks, not sticks, for such a work as this! How disproportionate to the toil of digging a well whose waters were to supply the wants of so vast a multitude! The lesson is apparent. We must use the means we have. It has been one of the great features of the spread of Christianity that God has made use of very weak instruments.

IV. Notice the Spirit with which they Dug. They dug ( a ) prayerfully , ( b ) joyfully. The song at Beer, it has been said, is 'a little carol, bright and fresh and sparkling as the water itself. It was, doubtless, used afterwards by the maidens of Israel as they drew water from the village wells.

Spring up, O well! sing to it,

Well which the princes dug,

Which the nobles of the people bored

With the sceptres of office, with their staves.

In the incident which we have been considering we have the four great elements of success in all work for God. (1) United prayer. When the voice of united prayer ascends to the God of all grace from workers who realize their dependence on Him, then we may expect that the Pentecostal blessing will come. (2) United praise. 'Sing ye to it.' (3) United effort. It was not Moses alone who digged, but the princes also, his representatives, his helpers. (4) Order. 'By the direction of the lawgiver.' He commanded they obeyed. Order is Heaven's first law.

J. W. Bardsley, Many Mansions, p. 199.

Bible Wells

Numbers 21:17

How many wells are mentioned in the whole Bible? We cannot pretend to count them. Sometimes the well is in the singular number, and frequently the word well swells into the plural number, as if it became a gathering of waters and a meeting of singing streams.

I. We find one wonderful well in Genesis 21:19 : 'And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water'. It was there all the time, but the eyes were not there. But had not the woman eyesight? Yes, of a bodily kind; but all that is sensuous ought to be typical and sacramental. 'And she went, and filled the bottle with water.' She only took a bottleful when she might have had a whole well. We might have more gospel if we had more capacity; sometimes we need a greater boldness that we may test the generosity of God; for saith He to those who draw from His wells, Bring another vessel, another, another; until the recipient says, Lord, I have been looking for more vessels, but I cannot find any. It is the receiver that gives in, not the Giver. She 'gave the lad drink' water drink, the true drink, the wine of heaven, in which no man ever found murder, lust, shame. 'The lad' that is a generic designation, taking in all the lads of the world; but in this particular instance she gave a nation drink, she nourished a nation in her bosom.

A great range of subject is started by this Hagar's well, covering such suggestions as the unexpected supplies of life. We were at our extremity, and that extremity became God's opportunity. Also referring to the unexpected deliverances of life.

Then the subject further suggests the unexpected friends, the human wells that occur or arise in life. This man will befriend me when I am in difficulty? Where is he? Gone. I am sure that I can apply to such an old comrade when this poor head fails and this poor hand can no longer serve itself, I will go in quest of him. And lo, he does not know me; he knew me when I was young and strong and prosperous. Yet I have friends and deliverances and supplies: how did I get them? You did not get them, God sent them; and the same night when Herod would have brought you forth to your mockery and contempt and derision, so far as society was concerned, the Lord sent His angel, and the chain melted at his touch.

II. There is a curious little idyll about a well in this same book of Genesis 24:13 'Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water'. They will all come to the well. You may not meet them in the field or in the wood or on the broad wayside; only now and then people come to such places or pass through them; but the well that is the point of union, that the wedding-ring place. Perhaps we may meet these fair daughters of men in the gardens of spices. Perhaps not; now and then they may be there, and we may be fortunate enough to catch a vision of such living beauty, but I can promise you nothing positive about that. We may find them in the cornfields. Well, the cornfields are a kind of annual festival, there is a time when the cornfields are thronged with people; but I cannot make you any definite promise about meeting the persons you are in quest of even in the cornfields, but I can promise you that all the city will be at the well. What! is it water? so simple and poor a thing as water that will bring men together? Many a man has been in such straits for want of water that he would have emptied his pockets if you would have given him one vessel full of spring water.

III. Here is a well mentioned in Proverbs 5:15 , 'Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well'. Have a city of the mind. There is an atheistical fidgeting; there is a yearning or a solicitude after outward things that would make the sacrament you drank in the morning of no effect.

IV. Does any other well occur to you? The greatest well of all. Jesus sat thus by the well, Jacob's well, Himself a deeper well, Himself, indeed, the creator of that well. Do you not read in the prophets this wondrous expression, 'The wells of salvation'? It is a beautiful picture. Men are drawing water out of the wells of salvation, and as they do so they sing a sweet song unto the Lord; for who can be silent in the plash of living streams?

Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. III. p. 98.

References. XXI. 16-18. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiii. No. 776. XXI. 17, 18. T. G. Rooke, The Church in the Wilderness, p. 296. XXII. -XXV. B. J. Snell, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. 1897, p. 153. XXII. 5. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, p. 367. Marcus Dods, Christ and Man, p. 163. XXII. 7. Hiley, A Year's Sermons, vol. i. p. 228. XXII. 12, 20-22. Hugh Black, University Sermons, p. 223.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Numbers 21". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/numbers-21.html. 1910.
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