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Bible Commentaries

Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae
Numbers 21



Verse 4



Numbers 21:4. And the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

THE history of human nature is nearly the same in all ages. Successive generations ought progressively to advance in wisdom, because they have the advantage of others’ experience. But youth will not avail themselves of the instructions of their forefathers: they will go forward in their own ways; exactly as if they had no compass whereby to steer, nor any chart of the rocks and shoals, on which so many thousands have been shipwrecked. “The way of their predecessors has been folly; and yet their posterity, in practice at least, applaud their saying.” A new generation had been born in the wilderness since the departure of the Israelites from the land of Egypt; and they had ample means of information respecting the rebellious conduct of their fathers, and the chastisements inflicted on account of it: yet on similar occasions they constantly acted in a similar manner, murmuring and complaining as soon as any new trial arose, and wishing themselves dead, to get rid of their present troubles. Thus it was with them at this time. We propose to inquire into,

I. The causes of their discouragement—

Doubtless, to those who could not implicitly confide in the wisdom and goodness of God, there was ground for discouragement. There was,

1. A perplexing providence—

[The period fixed for their entrance into Canaan was nearly arrived. They had just had a severe engagement with one of the Canaanitish kings, who had come forth against them with all his forces; and, after suffering a partial defeat, had entirely vanquished him. But they were not suffered to follow up their success, or to proceed to the immediate invasion of his land. On the contrary, having been refused permission to pass through the territories of the king of Edom, they were directed to “compass his whole land, and to go back to the Red Sea,” perhaps as far as to Ezion-gaber [Note: Deuteronomy 2:8.]. This was after they had been thirty-nine years and six months in the wilderness; after two of their leaders, Miriam and Aaron, were taken from them by death; and when there remained but six months to the time fixed for their entrance into the promised land. How unaccountable did this appear! Must they wait to be attacked in the wilderness, and never be permitted to reap the reward of victory? Must they wait in the wilderness till their enemies should be willing to resign their land? Had God forgotten his promise, or determined that they should spend another forty years in the wilderness? If the promise was to be fulfilled, why give them the trouble of traversing the wilderness again? If it was not to be fulfilled, they had better die at once, than protract a miserable existence under such vexatious and cruel disappointments.

Whilst they viewed the dispensation in this light, we do not wonder that “their soul was much discouraged.”

In truth, this is a very common source of discouragement to ourselves. Persons, on their first commencement of their journey heaven-ward, are apt to be sanguine, and to expect that they shall speedily arrive at the promised land. At one time they seem near it, but are turned back again, in order that by a long course of trials, they may be better prepared to enjoy it. At another time they seem almost to possess it; and then, not long after, find themselves at a greater distance from it than ever. Thus “hope deferred maketh their heart sick:” and being disappointed in their expectations, they yield to great dejection of mind: ‘If I am not of the number of God’s people, whence have I these desires? if I am, why have I not those attainments?’

The same disquietude arises from perplexities of any kind, where the promise, and the providence, of God appear at variance with each other. Not being able to account for the Lord’s dealings towards them, “their souls are cast down, and greatly disquieted within them.”]

2. A long protracted trial—

[Forty years of trial was a long period: and the nearer they came to its completion, the longer every day appeared. Hence this fresh order to go back to the Red Sea, and there to recommence their travels, quite overwhelmed them.

And how do long-continued afflictions operate on us? For a season we can bear up under them: but when pains of body, or distress of mind, are lengthened out; when the clouds, instead of dispersing, thicken, and storms of trouble are gathering all around us; then patience is apt to fail, and the mind sinks under its accumulated trials. Because “our strength is small, we faint under our adversity.” Even Job, that bright pattern of patience, who after the heaviest losses could say, “The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord;” even he, I say, fainted at last, and cursed the day of his birth. And he must be endued with an uncommon measure of grace, who under such circumstances can say with Paul, “None of these things move me.”]

That we may see how their discouragement operated, let us consider,

II. The effects produced by it—

Their minds being discomposed, they immediately gave way to,

1. A dissatisfied spirit—

[Many were the blessings which they received from the hand of God: they lived by a continual miracle: they were provided with water out of a rock, and with manna daily from the clouds: and yet they complain, “There is no bread, neither is there any water: and our soul lotheth this light bread.” Because they did not partake of that variety which the nations around them enjoyed, they were discontented: or rather, because they were offended with the order to go back unto the Red Sea, they were displeased with every thing.

What a picture is this of human frailty! The mind discouraged on one account, looks not out for circumstances of alleviation and comfort, but gives itself up to disquietude and dejection. Temporal blessings lose all their relish. Let even the bread of life be administered to persons in such a frame, they can taste no sweetness in it; the promises of God seem not suited to their case; nor are they sufficient for their support. They “cannot hear the voice of the charmer, charm he never so wisely.” If they even turn their minds to the right object, it is only to confirm their own doubts, and to augment their own sorrows. Their experience is like that of Asaph, “My sore ran in the night, and ceased not; my soul refused to be comforted: I remembered God, and was troubled [Note: Psalms 77:2-3.].”]

2. A murmuring spirit—

[How lamentable to hear them on this occasion accusing God and his servant Moses of having brought them out of Egypt with a view to deceive their expectations and to kill them in the wilderness! But the mind, once thrown off its bias, will stop short of nothing, unless it be restrained by the grace of God [Note: Isaiah 8:21-22.]. Let any one that has been in deep affliction, look back and see, whether he has not found his mind rise against the immediate authors of his calamities, and ultimately against God himself, for having appointed him so hard a lot [Note: Proverbs 19:3.]? It is true, we do not perhaps intend to accuse God; but we do it in effect; because, whoever be the instrument, it is his hand that smites. Whether Chaldeans or Sabeans invaded the property of Job, or tempests destroyed his family, the holy sufferer referred the events to God, as their true author. Without God, not a hair of our head could be touched, even if the whole world were confederate against us: when therefore we murmur at the calamities we suffer, we murmur in reality against him who sends them.]

It may be asked perhaps, How could they help yielding to this discouragement? That they might have done so, will appear, whilst we shew,

III. The way in which they should have fortified themselves against it—

It behoved them in this trouble, as indeed in every other, to consider,

1. Whence it came—

[It did not spring out of the dust; it came from God; even from him who had brought them out of Egypt, and had supported them to that very hour. Had they not had evidence enough of God’s power and goodness during the nine and thirty years that they had continued in the wilderness? and did it not become them to place their confidence in him, though they could not see the immediate reason of his dispensations?

Thus should we do, when tempted to disquietude and despondency: we should say, “It is the Lord; let him do what seemeth him good:” “the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” Yes; “when walking in darkness, we should stay ourselves upon our God;” and determine with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” This was the expedient to which David resorted in the midst of all his troubles, and which he found effectual to compose his mind; “he encouraged himself in the Lord his God [Note: 1 Samuel 30:6 with Psalms 42:11.].”]

2. For what end it was sent—

[God has expressly stated the end for which he tried them so long in the wilderness: it was, “to humble them, and to prove them, that they might know what was in their hearts [Note: Deuteronomy 8:2.].” And was not the prospect of such an end sufficient to reconcile them to the means used for the attainment of it? Let us also consider the ends for which our afflictions are sent: are they not sent with a view to make us “partakers of his holiness?” Who would be discouraged at his trials, if he reflected on the necessity which there is for them, and the blessed fruit that shall spring from them? Doubtless, they are “not joyous for the present, but grievous:” nevertheless the refiner’s fire may well be endured, if only it purge us from our dross, and make us, as “vessels of honour, meet for our Master’s use.”]

3. The certain issue of it, if duly improved—

[They were well assured that God would fulfil his promises. Even their recent victory over the Canaanites was a pledge and earnest of their future conquests. What if they did not understand the way of the Lord? The direction they had taken at their first departure from Egypt had appeared to their fathers to be erroneous: but it had proved “the right way;” and they should have been satisfied, that this, though alike mysterious, would have a similar issue; and that the number and greatness of their trials would ultimately redound to the glory of their God, and to their own real happiness

Thus we should bear in mind that all our afflictions are working together for good, and that, “light and momentary in themselves, they are working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” Did we but consider this, we should be content to suffer, till we had filled up our appointed measure: yea, we should even “glory in our tribulations,” knowing that we are to be “made perfect by them,” and that “they are our appointed way to the kingdom of heaven.”]


[Certain it is that “we have need of patience, in order that, when we have done the will of God, we may inherit the promises.” But let not any of the sons and daughters of affliction yield to discouragement. If their trials be great, their supports and consolations shall be great also. Are they particularly discouraged at the thought of their weakness and sinfulness? let them recollect, what a fulness of merit and of grace is treasured up for them in Jesus; that “where sin has abounded, his grace shall much more abound; and that his strength shall surely be perfected in their weakness.”]

Verse 8-9



Numbers 21:8-9. 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, token he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole: and it came to pass, mat if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

IT is said in Scripture, that, “where sin hath abounded, grace shall much more abound.” This declaration, if received as a licence for sin, would be pernicious in the extreme: but, if taken as an encouragement to repent, its tendency is most consolatory and beneficial. That God has magnified his grace towards the most unworthy of men, and even taken occasion from their wickedness to display the unbounded extent of his own mercy, is certain: we need only read the history of the Israelites in the wilderness, and we shall be fully convinced of this. Their conduct was most perverse. They were truly a stiff-necked people. Notwithstanding all their experience of God’s kindness towards them, they could never confide in him, but were always murmuring, and always rebelling. By their wickedness they brought down upon themselves the divine judgments; but no sooner did they implore forgiveness, than God returned to them in mercy, and put away his judgments far from them. We have a very singular instance of this in the history before us; where we are informed, that God had, on account of their murmurings, sent fiery flying serpents to destroy them; but, on the intercession of Moses, had appointed them an easy remedy, by the use of which their wounds were healed, and their calamities removed.

We propose to consider,

I. The appointment itself—

The need of God’s interposition was exceeding urgent—

[The wilderness abounded with serpents, such as the camp was now infested with [Note: Deuteronomy 8:15.]. They were of a very malignant nature, causing by their bite a fetal inflammation [Note: They are probably called “fiery” on this account, rather than from their colour.]. Multitudes of the people had been bitten by them: many were dying; and many were already dead. In vain did any of them seek an antidote against the venom, with which they were in hourly expectation of being infected: nor could any means be devised to abate its force. What then could the people do? To arm themselves against the danger, was impossible: they were assailable on every side: the serpents being winged, their assaults were irresistible. In this extremity, they apply themselves to Him, who alone was able to deliver. They humble themselves before their God; and they entreat Moses to intercede for them. If God have not mercy on them, they must all perish. Such was the extremity to which they were reduced.]

But the manner in which he interposed was strange and unaccountable—

[God ordered a serpent to be made of brass, as like as possible to those which bit the people: and that serpent he commanded to be erected on a pole, in order that the wounded persons might look unto it and be healed. But what connexion was there between the means and the end? Of what use could a piece of brass be, or what could it signify of what shape it was? Of what service could it be to look upon it? If it were used in a way of friction; or if it were reduced to powder and swallowed; or any mixture were made with an infusion of brass in it; one might suppose it possible that such a prescription might be of some use: there might be some affinity between the remedy and the disease: but, when such an order as that in our text was given, it seemed rather as if God were only “laughing at their calamity, and mocking, now that their fear was come.”]

Strange however as this might appear at the time, the reason of it is clear to us, who know,

II. The mystery contained in it—

That the deepest mysteries of our holy religion were shadowed forth by it, we are well assured, because our blessed Lord has expressly referred to it as illustrative and explanatory of them. Let us, for distinctness’ sake, consider,

1. The provision made—

[God ordered that a brasen serpent should be made like unto the other serpents, (but without their venom;) and that it should be erected on a pole in the midst of the camp. And herein was a great mystery. What, I would ask, is the provision which God has made for the recovery of a ruined world? Has he not sent his only dear Son into the world, to he made “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” yea, to he “made in all things like unto us, sin only excepted [Note: Romans 8:3 with Hebrews 2:17; Hebrews 4:15.]?” Has he not caused that glorious Person to he suspended on a cross, and to yield up his own life a sacrifice for sin? Has he not moreover commanded that in every place, and in every age, that adorable Saviour should, by the preaching of the everlasting Gospel, be “evidently set forth crucified before the eyes of men [Note: Galatians 3:1.]?” Here then we behold that which was prefigured by the brasen serpent. In affirming this, we speak only what our Lord himself has declared [Note: John 3:14.]. Indeed on several different occasions did he refer to this type, as to receive in due season its accomplishment in him [Note: John 8:28; John 12:32.]. O how are we indebted to God for the light of his blessed Gospel! Little did the Israelites know what a stupendous mercy was here exhibited to their view. Doubtless, as a mere ordinance for the healing of their bodies, they would be thankful for it; but how thankful should we be, who see in it such a wonderful provision for our souls! Let us contemplate it: God’s co-equal, co-eternal Son, Jehovah’s Fellow, made incarnate! The Deity himself assuming our nature with all its sinless infirmities, and dying an accursed death upon the cross! and this too for the salvation of his own rebellious creatures! O let us never for one moment forget, that this is the means which God has appointed for our deliverance from death and hell: let us contemplate it, till our hearts are altogether absorbed in wonder, love, and praise.]

2. The direction given—

[The only thing which the Israelites had to do, was, to look unto the brasen serpent. There was nothing else required of them: they were not first to heal themselves in part; or to apply any other remedy in conjunction with this: nor were they to do any thing either to merit, or to increase its efficacy: they were simply to look unto the serpent, as God’s ordinance for their recovery. Here then we behold a further mystery. Never from the foundation of the world was the way of salvation more plainly, more fully, or more intelligibly declared, than in this simple method of obtaining the desired blessing. Salvation is only and entirely by faith in Christ. The direction which Christ himself gives us by the Prophet Isaiah, is this: “Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else [Note: Isaiah 45:22.].” And when he sent forth his disciples to preach his Gospel, he especially charged them to declare, that “he who believed, should be saved; and he who believed not, should be damned [Note: Mark 16:16.].” Many other things indeed he requires of his people: he requires that they should repent, in order to evince that they truly desire mercy; and that they should obey, in order to manifest that they have obtained mercy; but both their repentance and obedience are carefully excluded from the office of justifying: justification is invariably declared to be by faith alone. “It is by faith in order that it may be by grace [Note: John 3:15 with Romans 4:16; Romans 11:6 and Ephesians 2:8-9.]:” and, when we have learned how much the Israelites did for the healing of their bodies, then we shall know how much our own works are to procure the healing of our souls. In this view the type before us is singularly instructive: it is so plain, that it is obvious to the meanest apprehension; so comprehensive, that nothing can be added for the elucidation of it; and so authenticated, that scepticism itself cannot doubt either its reference or its accomplishment.]

3. The effect produced—

[If any despised the remedy, they died: whereas not a single instance occurred, throughout all the camp of Israel, of any person resorting to it in vain. However desperate his state was, however distant he might be from the serpent, or however indistinctly he beheld it, the effect was still the same; every person who looked to it as God’s ordinance for the healing of his wounds, was healed by it; he was healed immediately, and he was healed perfectly. The man that can see no mystery here, is blind indeed. We may defy the ingenuity of men or angels to devise any means whereby the efficacy of faith in Christ should be more clearly ascertained. Plain indeed is that declaration of St. Paul, “All that believe, are justified from all things [Note: Acts 13:39.]:” but, plain as it is, it does not so forcibly strike the mind, as does the typical representation in our text. All the questions that can arise respecting the nature and the efficacy of faith, are here distinctly answered. If suppositions are made which can never be verified, no wonder if difficulties occur which cannot be solved: but let us only remember, that faith is a looking to Christ for salvation, and that that faith is uniformly and universally productive of good works; and then we can no more doubt its efficacy to save the soul, than we can doubt the veracity of God. We inquire not, whether that faith be strong or weak; (though doubtless the stronger it is, the more abundant will be its fruits:) we only ask, whether it be genuine and unfeigned; and then we do not hesitate to affirm, that the possessor of it “shall be saved:” “he shall not be ashamed or confounded world without end [Note: Acts 16:31 with Isaiah 45:17.].”]


1. Those who are averse to this method of salvation—

[Many there are to whom the doctrine of salvation by faith alone is an object of disgust. It was so in the first ages of Christianity; and it is so still to the greater part of the Christian world. But though the cross of Christ is still, as formerly, “to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness,” yet is it at this time, as it was then, “the power of God and the wisdom of God [Note: 1 Corinthians 1:23-24.].” If it be objected, that to be saved by faith alone, and by faith in One who saved not himself, appears absurd; we answer, That such an objection might with just as much reason have been urged against the healing of dying men by the sight of a brasen serpent: and that it is not for us to prescribe to God in what way he shall save a ruined world. It is not for us to dictate, but obey. Were there therefore really as little connexion between the means and the end in the gospel salvation, as there was in the typical representation of it, it would still be our duty thankfully to submit to the remedy proposed. But this is not the case: it would be easy to shew that there is a wonderful suitableness between the death of Christ as an atonement for sin, and the mercy vouchsafed to us for his sake: nor is there a less suitableness between our exercise of faith in him, and his communication of grace to us. But without entering into that discussion at present, we refer to the type as decisive of the point. “Wash and be clean,” was said to Naaman; “Look and be healed,” to Israel; “Believe and be saved,” to us. This is Christ’s message to a guilty world; and “blessed is he who shall not be offended in him.”]

2. Those who have experienced its saving benefits—

[The brasen serpent was carried by the Israelites throughout all the remainder of their journey: and, if they had been bitten again by the fiery serpents, they would doubtless have had recourse again to the remedy, which they had once found to be effectual. The need of repeated applications to our remedy is daily recurring; and, thanks be to God! its efficacy is undiminished. To all therefore would we repeat the direction before given, “Look unto Christ and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.” If those around you doubt, as certainly they will doubt, the efficacy of faith, let them read it in your whole conduct: let them see that your corruptions are mortified, and your evil dispositions are healed. Let them see that there is a difference between you and those around you, and such a difference too, as nothing but faith in Christ can produce. They will be boasting of other remedies, which, in spite of their utmost exertions, they will find ineffectual: but let them see in you the superior excellence of that, which God has revealed in his Gospel. Declare to them the way of life: exalt the Lord Jesus in their eyes: commend him to them with your lips; but most of all commend him to them in your lives. In a word, let your whole conversation be a visible comment on those words of the Apostle, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world [Note: Galatians 6:14.].”]


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Bibliography Information
Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Numbers 21:4". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. 1832.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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