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HEZEKIAH DESTROYS THE BRASEN SERPENT
2 Kings 18:4. He brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.
WE too often see the children of godly parents turning aside from the principles in which they have been educated, and deserting the paths which parental piety has marked out for them. Here we behold a youth, whose father was branded with a special mark of infamy on account of his numerous and aggravated [Note: 2 Chronicles 28 :.] impieties, shining with a brighter lustre than any other of the kings of Judah [Note: ver. 5, 6.]. No sooner did he come to the throne of his father than he set himself to counteract all the evil which his father had done. At the early age of twenty-five he commenced a reformation, which, for the time at least, was attended with the happiest effects. “He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made.” It seems that the veneration in which that memorial of God’s mercy had been held, had degenerated into the grossest superstition. Where the brasen serpent had been preserved for so long a period, we are not informed. Had it been placed within the sanctuary, with the pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, being concealed from the view both of the people and the priests, it would not have become an object of idolatrous regard. But it is not to be wondered at, that, when idols of every kind were multiplied in the land, this, which as a memorial of God’s mercy was really entitled to most affectionate respect, should have divine honours paid to it. The use which was made of it by the Jewish people naturally leads me to shew, How prone men are to superstition: whilst the zeal of Hezekiah in destroying it, will properly afford me an occasion yet further to shew, How earnestly we ought, all of us according to our ability, to counteract the superstition that is around us.
How prone men are to superstition—
Superstition, I am aware, may exist, without being carried to the extent in which it prevailed amongst the Jews at this time. But the same ingredients are found in it, whatever be the degree in which it prevails. In the instance before us its component parts are manifest. The Jews carried their veneration of the brasen serpent to a very culpable excess: they assigned to it a sanctity, which it did not possess—they ascribed to it a glory, which it did not merit—they expected from it a benefit, which it could not confer. Now, whether our superstition have respect to a visible creature, or only to a figment of the brain, its essential qualities are the same; and man in his fallen state is prone to it.
It obtained, and still obtains, universally amongst the heathen—
[What were, or are, the Deities of the heathen, but men, who on account of some exploits in former days have been canonized, or mere creatures of the imagination invested with divine attributes? The philosophers of Greece and Rome knew of no other gods than these; and in that respect were scarcely more rational than any other of the heathen, whether in ancient or modern times.]
Amongst the Jews also it ever did, and still does, prevail to an awful extent—
[Scarcely had they been brought out of Egypt before they made a golden calf, and worshipped it as their god [Note: Acts 7:41.]. Through their whole abode in the wilderness they bowed down to Moloch and Remphan, the gods of the heathen that were around them [Note: Acts 7:42-43.]. After their settlement in Canaan they evinced the same propensity continually. The greatest mercies which God vouchsafed to them were abused to this end. Was the law given them from Mount Sinai? they rested in it for justification, instead of using it as “a ministration of condemnation,” and a rule of life. Was the temple of God among them? in that they trusted as a security against their enemies, saying, as Micah did when he had secured a Levite for his priest, “Now know I that the Lord will do me good, seeing I have a Levite to my priest [Note: Judges 17:13; Jeremiah 7:4.].” Had they the badge of circumcision? they thought that would suffice, though they knew nothing of the true circumcision of the heart. To this present hour the dispersed of Israel have no juster views of God and of religion than those had in former days; of whom it is said, that, trusting in their own righteousness, they would not submit to the righteousness of God. Even the doctrines of man’s invention had, and still have, a greater authority over them than the commands of God — — —]
And what is Popery but a mass of superstition altogether?
[What is the worship of the Virgin Mary, and of saints, and relics? What are all the masses, the pilgrimages, and the penances that are prescribed among them as means of expiating their sins? What is their auricular confession, their priestly absolution, their adoring of the consecrated wafer, and their administration of extreme unction? Some, I trust, there are, who are enabled to look simply to Christ through all the mists that are cast around him: but those who regard the dogmas of popery as the only ground of their hopes, are as far from God and truth as either Jews or heathens.]
Would to God that the Protestant world were blameless in relation to this matter!
[The light which we enjoy ought long since to have dispelled the clouds of popish superstition: but amongst the generality there still remains a most astonishing blindness respecting the Gospel of Christ. How many are there who imagine that repentance has in itself a power to wash away their sins! How many regard the Lord’s supper, not as a mere commemorative ordinance in and through which divine blessings are dispensed, but as a sacrificial act, that expiates their guilt, and insures their forgiveness! Baptism, in like manner, is supposed by many to take away our sins, yea, and to renew our natures also, not as it is received, but simply as administered: and they who deny this, are represented as denying the sacramental character of the ordinance. Thus do many amongst ourselves run into the very same absurdity as the Jews did in relation to the brasen serpent. God once conveyed bodily health by a sight of the brasen serpent; and he now conveys spiritual health in and through the ordinance of baptism. But the serpent did not heal all, but those only who looked to it by faith: nor did it heal them by any power of its own, but only as appointed of God to be a medium of communication from him to them. When the Jews ascribed the honour to the brasen serpent, and looked to it for future benefits, they erred: and precisely in the same manner do they err, who ascribe power to baptism as an act, instead of looking simply to God for his blessing on the use of it as an instituted ordinance, and a medium of communication with him. As reasonably might any person ascribe the refreshing water which he drinks to the pipe which conveys it to him, as imagine that the mere act of baptism can justify and sanctify his soul. There is a fountain to which the stream must be traced: and, if we suffer our views to terminate on any thing short of that, we are guilty of the grossest superstition.
In a word, there is in every man by nature a tendency to this fatal evil, and a readiness to rob God of his glory, by giving to the creature that honour which is due to him alone.] Such is the proneness of man to superstition: and, from Hezekiah’s conduct, we learn,
How earnestly we should all endeavour to counteract it—
We should counteract it,
[There is a great deal of this evil remaining in the heart, even after we are truly converted unto God. To view God in every thing; to ascribe every thing, evil as well as good, to God [Note: Amos 3:6.]; to give him the glory of every thing; and to depend wholly and entirely upon him for every thing, is an attainment to which we are not soon brought: we gain it for the most part by a long and painful discipline. There is a measure of creature-confidence and creature-dependence cleaving to us to the end: or though we be purged from it, yet is there a tendency to return to it, and a necessity to be constantly on our guard against it. Whence is that confidence which some derive from dreams, or visions, or other conceits of their own 2 Whence is that stress which they lay on the word of God coming to their minds in this or that particular way? It all arises from a propensity inherent in fallen man to rest in something besides God. The word of God is our only legitimate ground of either hope or fear. The manner of its being applied to the mind does not alter one jot or tittle of it. The promises are not a whit more sure because they are presented with force to our minds, nor the threatenings less sure because we are strongly impressed with the idea that they shall never be fulfilled in us. And the only effect of attending to our own feelings in relation to these things is, to generate a presumptuous confidence in some, and groundless apprehensions in others. They all draw the mind from God; and must be guarded against as superstitious vanities: and “all who trust in such vanities, shall have vanity for their recompence.”]
[Were superstition a harmless delusion, we might leave men to themselves: but when we consider how great an evil it is, and how strenuously the pious Hezekiah opposed it, we should all use our utmost efforts to counteract it in the world. Whether we view the dishonour which it does to God, or the evil which it entails on man, we cannot but see, that we should tread in Hezekiah’s steps respecting it That it robs God of his glory, is obvious; because it ascribes to the creature what is due to Him alone. And it is most injurious to man, because whilst it disappoints his hopes, it actually robs him of all the blessings which the Gospel itself provides. What did St. Paul say to those who relied on circumcision as securing or confirming to them the benefits of the Gospel? Did he say, “If ye be circumcised, your circumcision shall profit you nothing?” No: but, “If ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing [Note: Galatians 5:2.].” And so must we say in reference to superstition of every kind: it not only fails to procure the benefits it aspires to, but actually deprives us of the benefits we might otherwise obtain: and it would be well if those, who superstitiously regard divine ordinances, whether baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, or any other ordinance, as possessing any inherent virtue in themselves, and as imparting virtue by any power of their own, would contemplate their guilt and danger whilst under the influence of such delusions: for to those who against better light adhere to them, as necessarily conveying justification and sanctification and salvation, “Christ himself will become of no effect:” they are fallen from grace; and, as far as respects them, “Christ is dead in vain [Note: Gal 5:4 with Galatians 2:21.].”
Well I know that to some these sentiments will appear harsh: but fidelity to God and man requires, that, if even an angel from heaven should countenance such an error, he should be opposed [Note: Galatians 1:8-9.]. And if in opposing such errors any one think that we manifest too much zeal, what would such an one have said to Hezekiah? ‘What! know you not that that serpent was appointed as an ordinance by God himself? Know you not how many thousands were healed by it? And do you dare to break it in pieces, and to degrade it with such an appellation as “Nehushtan” as though it were no better than a mere piece of brass? I am shocked at your impiety.’ But what would Hezekiah have said? ‘It is not as an ordinance of God that I degrade it, but as idolatrously substituted in God’s place, as a ground of hope, and as a source of good.’ So say I of baptism and of the Lord’s supper: ‘In their proper and appointed use they cannot be too highly valued: but, if abused to purposes for which they were not given, and looked to as containing in themselves, and conveying of themselves, salvation to man, they are desecrated, and may justly be called Nehushtan.’ So Paul said in relation to circumcision, which corresponds with the Christian ordinance of baptism. When some abused it as a ground of hope, he would not acknowledge them as the people of God. He indignantly denominates them “the concision,” declaring that they only were the circumcision who sought their salvation in God alone. And if any be offended with this doctrine, we refer them to Hezekiah; we refer them to St Paul. It is too weighty a matter to be trifled with, seeing that it is of vital importance to every soul of man.]
Let us learn, then, from hence,
How to use God’s ordinances—
[We should be thankful for them: we should honour them: we should look to God in them, and expect from God through them the communications of his grace and peace. They are to be reverenced, but not idolized; to be used as means, but not rested in as an end. No one is to imagine himself the better, merely because he has attended on any ordinances: for he may eat his own condemnation at the supper of the Lord, and have the word which is ministered unto him “a savour only of death.” We must look, not to ordinances, but to God in them: and just so much as we obtain from God in them are we benefited by them. This present ordinance for instance; What are you the better for it, if you have not held communion with God himself in your devotions? And what benefit will you receive from the word now delivered, if it come not to you in demonstration of the Spirit and of power? Bear this in mind, both before you come up to the house of God, and when you depart from it; and then you will find the ordinances to be blessings indeed. But, if you “sacrifice to your own net, and burn incense to your own drag [Note: Habakkuk 1:16.],” your coming hither will be in vain, and our labour also will be in vain.]
How to regard the Lord Jesus Christ himself—
[Methinks these Jews, though so blind and sinful, may well rise up in judgment against the generality of the Christian world. The serpent which they worshipped had never done any thing for them; the persons whom it had healed, had lived eight hundred years before; and it prevailed only to prolong for a season their corporeal life: and no benefit had accrued from it to any child of man since the day that it was erected in the camp. Yet they honoured it, and “offered incense to it.” But the Lord Jesus Christ has been healing immortal souls; and that from the foundation of the world to this present hour; and so healed them, that they should live for ever. This too he has done, not by being unconsciously and without volition suspended on the cross; but by voluntarily leaving his Father’s bosom, and assuming our nature, and dying on the cross under the load of all our sins, and drinking to the very dregs that cup of bitterness which must otherwise have been put into our hands to drink for ever. Yet how many days and months and years have been spent by most of us without ever offering to him the incense of our prayers and praise! Yea, notwithstanding he is erected for the healing of us, and is at this moment empowered to bestow on us all the blessings that we can need for body or for soul, for time or for eternity, how little is he adored and magnified by us! May we not well be ashamed when we reflect on this? May we not be confounded when we compare our treatment of him with the conduct of the Jews towards the senseless shadowy representation of him? Yes indeed; we have reason to blush and be confounded before him. Let us then repent of all our ingratitude towards him. Let us remember that there is no fear of honouring him too much, since He is God, as well as man; and not the medium of communication only, but the true and proper source of all blessings to our souls. Then shall our communion with him be sweet: and “the golden oil shall flow through the golden pipes [Note: Zechariah 4:11-14.]” of his ordinances, from Him the fountain of it, to the enriching of our souls with all spiritual blessings, and to the everlasting glory of his great and glorious name.]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on 2 Kings 18". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25