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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Numbers 21

 

 

Verses 1-35

Verses 4-9

Numbers 21:4-9

Much discouraged because of the way.

On the discouragements of pious men

I. I shall point out the discouragements in the way; and, in doing this, I shall keep my eye on the pilgrimage of the people who were originally referred to is the text, and thence draw my chief illustrations.

1. The way is circuitous, and therefore discouraging. Souls that are brought to Jesus, and delivered from the slavery of sin and the curse of the law, in their first ardour overlook trials, and think of nothing but enjoyments; they do not anticipate the fightings and fears that are the portion of God’s Israel. After a time, through want of watchfulness and care, the love of the espousals begins to decline, the world regains a degree of influence, the Spirit is grieved, and they fear God has become their enemy; they seem to themselves to go backward, and, indeed, are in danger of doing so, if they neglect to watch and pray; and much time is spent in mourning, retracing the ground that has been lost.

2. The way is through a wilderness, and is, on that account, discouraging. In a spiritual sense, this world is a wilderness.

3. The way lies through a hostile country, and is, therefore, discouraging. The Christian soon learns that he has to fight against “principalities, and powers, and spiritual wickedness.” The flesh is also an enemy. The Christian experiences the workings of carnality, a hankering after that which is evil, and to which he may have been addicted; as the Israelites after “the onions and garlic of Egypt.”

4. The false steps that are taken in the pilgrimage, and the consequent displeasure of God, are discouraging: there are so many errors and iniquities for which the Lord chastens His people, though He pardons sin as to its eternal consequences.

5. The total defection of men from the path is a great discouragement to those who still continue in the way.

6. The length of the way is discouraging. Though human life is short in itself, yet to our limited conception it appears long; especially when passed in suffering and pain. In protracted afflictions is seen the patience of the saints. Those saints, who endure in private, though unnoticed by their neighbours, and perhaps unknown, are the bravest heroes of the Christian camp.

II. I shall now direct you to some considerations to remove your discouragements.

1. Remember, the way you are in, believer, is “a right way,” notwithstanding all that has been said. Infinite Wisdom has ordained it: and if you reach the end, you will be well repaid for all your toil, and will admire the whole of the pilgrimage: no sorrow will appear to have been too heavy; no path too gloomy.

2. Another encouragement is, that God is with His people in the way. If He leads into the wilderness, He “speaks comfortably”; He spreads a table there, “and His banner over us is love.”

3. Remember there is no other way that leads to heaven. You cannot reconcile the service of sin and the world with the hope of heaven and the enjoyment of everlasting life in that holy state, and in the presence of the holy God. Will you, then, forego the hope of Canaan; as you must when you yield to sin, when you give yourselves to the world? (R. Hall, M. A.)

Discouraged because of the way

I. These words are applicable to God’s people now.

II. These words are applicable to those who have been God’s people. Do not many go back spiritually? Some tire of God’s service and abandon it.

III. These words are applicable to those who neither have been nor are God’s people. “Not far from the kingdom of God”--yet not happy. (T. R. Stevenson.)

Discouraged

Perhaps the way was rough and uneven, or foul and dirty; or it fretted them to go so far about, and that they were not permitted to force their passage through the Edomites’ country. Those that are of a fretful discontented spirit will always find something or other to make them uneasy. (Matthew Henry, D. D.)

Discouragements

Discouragement is a kind of middle feeling: it is, therefore, all the more difficult to treat. It does not go so far down as cowardice, and has hardly any relation to a sense of triumph or over-sufficiency of strength; but the point of feeling lies between, deepening rather towards the lower than turning itself sunnily towards the higher. When that feeling takes possession of a man, the man may easily become the prey of well-nigh incurable dejection. There are necessary discouragements. How awful it would be if some men were never discouraged!--they could not bear themselves, and they could not act a beneficent part towards other people. It is well, there fore, for the strongest man occasionally to be set back half-a-day’s travelling and have to begin to-morrow morning at the point where he was yesterday morning. It is of God that the strongest man should sometimes have to sit down and take his breath. Seeing such a man tired, even but for one hour, poor weak pilgrims may say, If he, the man of herculean strength, must pause awhile, it is hardly to be wondered at that we poor weaklings should now and then want to sit down and look round and recover our wasted energy. We must not forget that a good many discouragements are of a merely physical kind. We do not consider the relation between temperament and religion as we ought to consider it. Be rational in your inquiry into the origin of your discouragement, and be a wise man in the treatment of the disease. There are exaggerated discouragements. Some men have a gift of seeing darkness. They do not know that there are two twilights--the twilight of morning, and the twilight of evening; they have only one twilight, and that is the shady precursor of darkness. We have read of a man who always said there was a lion in the way. He had a wonderful eye for seeing lions. Nobody could persuade him that he did not see a ravenous beast within fifty yards of the field he intended to plough. This is an awful condition under which to live the day of human life. But that lion is real to him. Why should we say roughly, There is no lion--and treat the man as if he were insane? To him, in his diseased condition of mind, there is a lion. We mast ply him with reason softly expressed, with sayings without bitterness; we must perform before him the miracle of going through the very lion he thought was in the way; and thus, by stooping to him and accommodating ourselves to him, without roughness or brusqueness, or tyranny of manner and feeling, must bring him round to the persuasion that he must have been mistaken. Discouragement does not end in itself. The discouraged man is in a condition to receive any enemy, any temptation, any suggestion that will even for a moment rid him of his intolerable pressure. Through the gate of discouragement the enemy wanders at will. Therefore be tender with the discouraged. Some men cannot stop up all the night of discouragement by themselves; but if you would sit up with them, if you would trim the light and feed the fire, and say they might rely upon your presence through one whole night at least, they might get an hour’s rest, and in the morning bless you with revived energy for your solicitude and attendance. Discouragements try the quality of men. You cannot tell what some men are when their places of business are thronged from morning until night, and when they are spending the whole of their time in receiving money. You might regard them as really very interesting characters; you might be tempted to think you would like to live with them: they are so radiant, so agreeable. If you could come when business is slack, when there are no clients, ,customers, patrons, or supporters to be seen, you would not know the lovely angels, you would not recognise the persons whom you thought so delightful. What is the cure of this awful disease of discouragement? The very first condition of being able to treat discouragement with real efficiency is to show that we know its nature, that we ourselves have wandered through its darkness, and that we have for the sufferer a most manly and tender sympathy. Then are there no encouragements to be recollected in the time of our dejection? Do the clouds really obliterate the stars, or only conceal them? The discouragements can be numbered,--can the encouragements be reckoned--encouragements of a commercial, educational, social, relative kind--encouragements in the matter of health or spirits or family delights? (J. Parker, D. D.)

Fleshpots or manna

To all of us constantly a choice is offered; a choice of many names but of one significance, a choice which may be described variously, but which is fundamentally the same. It is the choice between law and licence; between pleasure and duty; between the flesh and the spirit; between God and Satan; between worldly life and heavenly hope; between intemperate sensualism and sober chastity. In some form or ether--great or small--this choice comes daily and almost hourly to all of us. But sometimes the choice comes to us in life in a concentrated, in almost a final form. The supreme hour, the distinct crisis, comes to us, at which we must definitely and consciously turn either to the right hand or to the left; must decide for ourselves between the God of our fathers and the strange gods of those among whom we dwell. It comes to all; it comes at any period of life; but perhaps in this deliberate form it comes mostly in youth. The boy at school has to make up his mind whether he will attach himself to bad companions and to forbidden pleasures, or fling them off with all the strength of his soul, and all the aid which he can win from prayer. The young woman has to decide between dress, self-assertion, the acceptance of flattery, the assertion of a spurious independence, the listening to the serpent tempter, the long gaze on the forbidden fruit; or, on the other hand, modesty, readiness to be guided, respect for the warnings of experience, the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit which is in the sight of God of great price. The youth of the poorer classes has to make up his mind whether he shall be a lounger at the tavern or a worshipper in the Church. But though the choice is in any case infinitely momentous, it is not necessarily final. There is, indeed, in human lives a law of habit, a law of continuity, which ever tends to make it final. Even the choice itself depends on all that has gone before it. The present decision is swayed by all the past. The shadow must have been creeping on the dial-plate before its black line marks the hour; and the clock must have accomplished its thousands upon thousands of tiny tickings before the great hammer-stroke can clash out that it is noon. And when the choice has been made, when we are definitely on the side of Satan or of God, the powers that make it the Armageddon field of their mighty battle do not at once or for ever leave it utterly alone. Now, the Israelites, of whom we read in this chapter, had long ago made their choice, and, by God’s grace, chosen right. They had been in the land of Egypt--the house of bondage. Coarse plenty, ignoble servitude, the starving of every noble impulse, the death of the soul amidst the comforts of the body--this had been their too common let. Fish and melons and leeks and cucumbers and garlic and the rich water of the Nile--these they had enjoyed in plenty, and to marry and bring up a low race of ignoble slaves. Myriads in this great city are at this moment in the land of Egypt, in the house of bondage; having plenty to eat and drink and live on--able to gratify every sense and sate every passion; but yet slaves--slaves of society, slaves of self, slaves of Satan, slaves of their own worst passions. And from this base, low life of serfdom and gluttony, one man awoke the Israelites. At first they misunderstood, rejected, vilified him. But at last God’s breath breathed upon these slain, and they began to live. The voice of Moses roused them. He thrilled them with the electric shock of liberty. So, making their brave choice, the children of Israel left the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, and went forth into the barren wilderness. It was a harder life, but a life oh, how far more noble! There was no garlic or leeks, but they were free. They were not fattening in fleshly comfort, but the great winds of God could now blow on the uplifted foreheads of men who were no longer slaves. The type of it all was this: there were no fleshpots, but there was manna; so men did eat angels’ food for He sent them meat enough. And what a difference between the two kinds of food! Not the coarse, steaming messes, reeking and rich, meet for the sensual and full-fed slave; but a honeydew which lay on the ground--small, white, glistering, exquisite, delicate as the food of heaven, but evanescent as morning tears. And in the first flush of freedom, in the purple dawn of enthusiasm, it was delightful, it was ennobling, to gather and to feed upon these pearls of the morning, which renewed the body, but did not encarnalise the soul. And they had made their choice, and they were glad like men. But then, as they plodded along the barren wastes, like the dead levels of middle life, came to them the temptations and the reactions of which I have spoken, and the necessity of renewing their choice, and not being discontented with it-of abiding by it, and not repenting it. The gross spell and baleful sorcery of Egypt returned like a wave of mud over the souls which God had freed. The spirit of the slave remained in them; the reek of Egypt’s fleshpots seemed to float back to their nostrils; they loathed the light “bread”; they sighed for the onions and the garlic and the rich water and fat, sluggish fields. Has not this sketch taught its own lessons? The one special lesson which I want to bring home is the training of the spiritual sense--the danger to the table of the Lord from the table of devils; the guilt of dallying with old temptations, the peril of furtive glances towards the doomed forsaken city. When God’s children hunger for righteousness, He impearls for them the ground with the manna-dews of heaven; but when they lust for quails, their food breeds plague and is loathsome unto them; and fiery serpents sting the diseased appetite, and at last the gorged prodigal craves, and craves vainly, for the husks of swine. For instance, God fills the world with water. The great sea rolls its pure, fresh waves of violet, and the tropic sun evaporates them, and they are distilled in the sweet laboratory of the air, and the wings of the winds winnow them free from the impurity amid the soft clouds of heaven, and they steal down in dew and silver rain, and hang like diamonds on the grass, and gladden the green leaves, and slide softly into the bosom of the rose, and bubbling through the mountain turf become the rivulets and the rivers, and are the sweet, wholesome, natural drink of man and beast, and we thank God for these springs of health, and disease drinks and sleeps. Now to the simple, natural, noble taste this is enough; it delights us. But man has distilled, in his laboratories, a fiery flaming spirit; and what sweetness is there in water to the coarsened palate, the inflamed thirst, the parched tongue, the vitiated taste, the depraved craving of the drunkard? How can that which is sweet and simple and natural contend with the brutifying attraction of oily, maddening, scorching drams, which poison and degrade? The taste for spiritual things--for the things of God--is like the pure, cool, delicious wholesome, but unmaddening, unseducing water; the drink of Egypt, the drink of the house of bondage, and the drink of the drunkard, and the madman, and the sensualist, is like that dissolved spirit of evil which is ruin, and sickness, and disease, and death. Again, the honest life--the life which scorns unjust gain, which hates the false balance and the deceitful weight; the life of the tradesman or the professional man who will not make haste to be rich, who will suffer no shoddy, no cheating, no adulteration, no double prices--its gains are steady, perhaps, and slow, and moderate. But when a man sees his unscrupulous neighbour, apparently prospering by fraud, getting rich by rapid dishonesty, gaining by gambling speculations, is it not woe to him if the manna of honesty begins to pall, and to grow insipid to his taste; if he begin to sigh for the fleshpots of Egypt rather than the manna of God; for the dross and refuse of base earthly success, rather than the pure, wholesome righteousness of just and honourable toil? Once more--the law of duty; of simple allegiance to the law of God; of self-restraint for His sake; this is manna. But if the youth tire at this, suffer it to pall upon him, murmur at it; revert in memory to conquered temptations; how can the taste of the manna survive the reek of these Egyptian fulnesses? How can the violets of purity and humility bloom and shed their fragrance under the coarse, foul upas tree of sensual passions? And in all these cases God--God in His mercy--sends fiery serpents to avenge in His children His forgotten, His violated laws. Oh! let God’s manna be dear to you; beware lest it pall upon you; beware how you grow weary of well-doing, and discontented with the gifts and ordinances of God. Oh, may God help us to cultivate all sweet and wholesome and spiritual tastes! If you do get to loathe the holy life--the manna of God--be sure that God has many a fiery serpent left in the wilderness for you; and oh! if you have already been bitten by that fiery serpent wherewith He punishes for sin, remember that “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man was lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (F. W. Farrar, D. D.)

The Lord sent fiery serpents.

In the valley of Seir

I. Sin. Its first characteristic was complaining against God and God’s guidance.

1. The hardships that lie in the path of obedience are the daily stumbling-rocks and rocks of offence.

2. The next element in their sin was that they despised the gifts God gave them. There are many joys within our reach, many sources of strength and peace and gladness, all innocent and God-given--faculties to develop, friendships to cultivate, treasuries of wisdom and knowledge to ransack; yet how often are they stale and unprofitable to us--“miserable bread”!

3. Earthly and sensual desires. They ever carried Egypt with them. They rose to nothing noble or heroic.

4. And was not this sin of Israel just the sin of which they were always guilty? Their murmurings are always to the same tune, their rebellions on the same lines and from the same motives. Sin is persistent. It becomes habitual. Day by day our souls take on a bias either for good or evil.

II. Suffering.

1. Sorrow ever trails in the wake of sin.

2. Sent by God.

3. For their good.

III. Salvation. (R. D. Shaw, B. D.)

Unreasonable complaint

I. What it was that they despised. Bread--

II. The unreasonableness of the complaint. Had nothing else on which to depend during journey.

III. The causes of disgust. Forgetfulness, weariness, ingratitude. (Daniel Katterns.)

Complaining punished

To complain is to be atheistic, to murmur is to throw down the altar, to adopt a reproachful tone regarding the necessary education of life is to challenge Divine wisdom. The complaint was punished as complaining must always be. Fretfulness always brings its own biting serpent along with it. Charge what improbability you may upon the particular account of serpents in the text--get rid of them if you can from the historical record--there remains the fact, that the fretful spirit burns itself, the discontented soul creates its own agony, the mind wanting the sweet spirit of contentment stings itself night and day and writhes continually in great suffering. Discontent never brought joy, peevishness never tranquillised the home-life, fretfulness in the head of the house, or in any member of the house, creates a disagreeable feeling throughout the whole place. Complaint punishes itself. Every complaint has a corresponding serpent, and the serpent bites still. The people complained of the light food--then God sent them fiery serpents. There is always something worse than we have yet experienced. The children of Israel might have thought the bread was the worst fate theft could befall them. To be without water, and to be continually living upon manna--surely there was nothing worse? We cannot exhaust the Divine resources of a penal kind. There is always some lower depth, always some keener bite, always some more painful sting, always some hotter hell. Take care how you treat life. Do not imagine that you can complain without being heard, and that you can be heard without punishment immediately following. This is the mystery of life; this is the fact of life. (J. Parker, D. D.)

We have sinned.--

The happiness of repentance

The proverb is old: “He runneth far that never returns.” Seven times a day falleth the just man, but he returneth; he riseth again and is sorry. When David had sinned so fearfully he looked back and repented. When another time he had caused the people to be numbered and so sinned, his heart smote him and he was sorry for it. A wild race did the prodigal son run, but he returned. Peter sinned most grievously, but he went out and wept bitterly. Happy were all these for their returning. And blessed be our good God for evermore that pardoneth upon repentance. Observe in their repentance their confession to God, because they had spoken against Him, and to Moses because they had also transgressed against him. “God knoweth all,” saith Ambrose, “but yet He looketh for thy confession.” God is never more ready to cover than when we lay open. The fox, say our books, taketh his prey by the throat so to stop all noise. And the devil, that fox, by all means hindereth holy confession, and bringeth men to deal with their souls as men used to deal with old rusty armour, either never, or once in a year or two, formally and superficially to scour it over. But as a thorn in your finger will grieve you still till it be had out, so will sin in your conscience still vex till it be acknowledged and confessed. If we have offended man, reconciliation to him is necessary. But “to thy God speak all,” saith Chrysostom, “even whatsoever thou art ashamed to speak unto man, for He expecteth thy voice although He knew it before, and He will never upbraid thee as man will.” Note, they trust in God’s mercy that upon prayer He would pardon, and therefore they despair not. This ever must be joined to our repentance, or else it is a gulf that will swallow us up. What will tears and confession profit if there be no hope of pardon? “My sin is greater than can be forgiven.” “But thou liest, Cain,” saith St. Augustine, “for the mercy of God is greater than all sinner’s misery.” (Bp. Babington.)

Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole.--

The first setting up of the brazen serpent

I. Discouragement. “Because of the way.”

1. Assuredly there are times when God’s servants become discouraged. To our shame let us confess it. It is by faith that we live, but discouragement is generally the fruit of unbelief; and so by discouragement we cease to live a healthy and vigorous life, we begin to faint. The reason may be found in various things.

2. Now, you are discouraged, you say, because of the way; but whose way is it? Have you chosen your own way and wilfully run against your duty and against the providence of God? Well, then, I say nothing about the consequences of such conduct, for they must be terrible. But if you have endeavoured to follow the Lord fully, and if you have tried to keep the path of His statutes, then it must be well with you. Why are you discouraged? Judge not by the sight of the eyes, nor by the hearing of the ears: let faith sit on the judgment-seat, and I am sure she will give forth this verdict--“If the Lord wills it, it is well. If Jehovah leads the way the road must be right.” Besides that, not only did God lead them but God carried them. He says Himself that He bare them on eagle’s wings: for though the ways were often rough, yet it is wonderful to remember that their feet did not swell, neither did their garments wax old upon them all those forty years. How could they be better off than to have heaven for their granary, the rocks for their wine-cellars, and God Himself for their Provider.

II. Complaint. “Spake against God and against Moses.” Some of us have need to be cautioned against letting the spirit of discouragement hurry us on to quarrelling with God and questioning His love. It is ill for a saint to strive with his Saviour. When these people made their first complaint it was a singular one. It was a complaint about having been brought out of Egypt. “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?”

1. Well, but first of all, they ought not to complain of being brought up out of Egypt, for that was a land of bondage where their male children had to perish in the river, and where they themselves longed to die, for life had become intolerable; and yet you see they are complaining that they were brought up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness as they said. Is it not possible that our rebellious hearts may even complain of God’s mercy? For want of something to murmur at, discouraged ones will pick holes in the goodness of God. What a pity that it should be so!

2. Next, look at their complaint of having no food: “There is no bread, neither is there any water.” It was a great falsehood. There was bread, they had to admit that fact in the next breath: but then they did not call the manna “bread.” They called it by an ugly name in the Hebrew. The water, too, was not muddy and thick like the water of the Nile; it was bright, clear, pure water from the rock; and therefore they would not call it water. They wanted water with substance in it which would leave grit between their teeth, and as the stream which leaped from the flinty rock was pure crystal they would not call it water. Have you not known people to whom God has given great mercy, and yet they have talked as if they were quite deserted? Unbelief is blind, just as surely as faith is far-seeing. Unbelief enjoys nothing, just as faith rejoices in everything.

III. Punishment. “Fiery serpents.”

1. Sometimes they may be new trials.

2. In some Christians they may be the uprisings of their own corruptions.

3. Or, it may be, that God wilt let Satan loose upon us if we disbelieve.

IV. Remedy.

1. Confession. “We have sinned.”

2. The second help was that Moses prayed for the people.

So our great cure against fiery serpents, horrible thoughts, and temptations, is intercession. “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” If we have grown downhearted and discouraged, and have sinned by unbelieving utterances, let us go with our poor, little, trembling faith, and ask the Divine Interposer to stand before God on our behalf, and pray for us that our transgressions may be blotted out.

3. But now comes the great remedy. After their confession and the prayer of their mediator, the Lord bade Moses make a brazen serpent and lift it up, that they might look upon it and live. When I first came to Christ as a poor sinner and looked to Him, I thought Him the most precious object my eyes had ever lit upon; but this night I have been looking to Him while I have been preaching to you, in remembrance of my own discouragements, and my own complainings, and I find my Lord Jesus dearer than ever. I have been seriously ill, and sadly depressed, and I fear I have rebelled, and therefore I look anew to Him, and I tell you that lie is fairer in my eyes to-night than He was at first. The brazen serpent healed me when first I saw the Lord; and the brazen serpent heals me to-night and shall do so till I die. Look and live is for saints as well as for sinners. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

Man’s ruin and God’s remedy

I. Man, thou art ruined! The children of Israel in the wilderness were bitten with fiery serpents, whose venom soon tainted their blood, and after intolerable pain brought on death. Thou art much in the same condition. Oh, sinner, there are four things that stare thee in the face, and should alarm thee!

1. The first thing is thy sin. I hear thee say, “Yes, I know I am a sinner as well as the rest of mankind”; but I am not content with that confession, nor is God content with it either. Ah! ye are without Christ, remember, not only is the world lost, but you are lost; not only has sin defiled the race, but you yourself are stained by sin. Come, now, take the universal charge home to yourself. How many have your sins been? Count them, if you can. There is nothing to be gotten by hiding your sins. They’ll spring up, if you dig deep as hell to hide them. Why not now be honest, and look at them to-day, for they’ll look at you by and by, when Christ shall come in the clouds of judgment?

2. Sinner, thou hast not only thy sin to trouble thee, but there is the sentence of condemnation gone out against thee. Ye are condemned already. What though no officer has arrested you, though death has not laid his cold hand upon you, yet Scripture saith, “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he believeth not on the Son of God.” I ask you this, whether you do not deserve it? If I never committed another sin, my past sins would fully justify the Lord in permitting me to go down alive into the pit. Now, these two things are enough to make any man tremble, if he did but feel them--his sin and his condemnation. But I have a third to mention.

3. Sinner, there is this to aggravate thy case and increase thine alarm--thy helplessness, thy utter inability to do anything to save thyself, even if God should offer thee the chance. Thou art dead in trespasses and sins. Talk of performing good works--thou canst not. But thou sayest, “I will repent.” Repentance is not possible to thee as thou art, unless God gives it to thee. There is no door of mercy left for you by the law, and even by the gospel there is no door of mercy which you have power to enter, apart from the help which Christ affords you. If you think you can do anything, you have yet to unlearn that foolish conceit. Now have I not indeed described a horrible position for a sinner to be in--but there is something more remaining, a fourth thing.

4. Sinner, thou art not only guilty of past sin, and condemned for it, thou art not only unable, but if thou wert able, thou art so bad that thou wouldst never be willing to do anything that could save thyself. For this know--thy nature is totally depraved. Thou lovest that which is evil, and not that which is good.

II. Having thus set before you the hard part of the subject--the sinner’s ruin--I now come to preach of his remedy. A certain school of physicians tells us that “like cures like.” Whether it be true or not in medicine, I know it is true enough in theology. When the Israelites were bitten with the fiery serpents, it was a serpent that made them whole. And so you lost and ruined creatures are bidden now to look to Christ suffering and dying, and you will see in Him the counterpart of what you see in yourselves.

1. I charge you with sin. Now in Christ Jesus behold the sinner’s substitute--the sin-offering. When I look at myself I think it would need much to redeem me, but when I see Christ dying I think He could redeem me if I were a million times as bad as I am. Now remember Christ not only paid barely enough for us, He paid more than enough. The Apostle Paul says, “His grace abounded”--“superabounded,” says the Greek. Christ’s redemption was so plenteous, that had God willed it, if all the stars of heaven had been peopled with sinners, Christ need not have suffered another pang to redeem them all--there was a boundless value in His precious blood. And, sinner, if there were so much as this, surely there is enough for thee.

2. And then again, if thou art not satisfied with Christ’s sin-offering, just think a moment; God is satisfied, God the Father is content, and must not thou be? The Judge says, “I am satisfied; let the sinner go free, for I have punished the Surety in his stead” and if the Judge is satisfied, surely the criminal may be.

3. In regard to the third particular. Our utter helplessness is such, that as I told you, we are unable to do anything. Yes, and I want you to look at Christ; was not He unable, too? You, in your father Adam, were once strong, but you lost your strength. Christ, too, was strong, but He laid aside all His omnipotence. See Him. The hand that poises the world hangs on a nail. See Him. The shoulders that supported the skies are drooping over the Cross. Look at Him. The eyes whose glances light up the sun are sealed in darkness. Look away from your own weakness to His weakness, and remember that in His weakness He is strong, and in His weakness you are strong too. Go see His hands; they are weak, but in their weakness they are stretched out to save you. Look at His eyes; they are closing in death, but from them comes the ray of light that shall kindle your dark spirit. Unable though thou art, go to Him who Himself was crucified through weakness, and remember that now “He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him.” I told you you could not repent, but if you go to Christ He can melt your heart into contrition, though it be as hard as iron. I said you could not believe; but if you sit down and look at Christ, a sight of Christ will make you believe, for He is exalted on high to give repentance and remission of sins.

4. And then the fourth thing. “Oh,” cries one, “you said we were too estranged to be even willing to come to Christ.” I know you were; and therefore it is He came down to you. You would not come to Him, but He comes to you, and though you are very evil, He comes with sacred magic in His arm, to change your heart. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

The brazen serpent; an emblem of heaven’s antidote in the gospel of Christ

I. The antidote provided in the gospel is for a most lamentable evil.

1. The affliction under which the Jews were now suffering, resembles sin in that it was--

2. Dissimilar, in that

II. The antidote provided in the gospel originated in the sovereignty of God. Points of difference between the remedies.

1. One was apparently arbitrary, the other is manifestly adapted.

2. The one was insensible to the sufferer, the other is filled with sympathy.

3. The one was local in its aspect, the other is worldwide in its bearing.

4. The one was temporary in its efficacy, the other is perpetual.

III. The antidote provided in the gospel requires the personal application of the sufferers.

1. The personal application is most simple.

2. The personal application is most unmeritorious.

3. The personal application is most indispensable.

4. The personal application is ever efficacious. (Homilist.)

The brazen serpent

I. The cause which produced it.

1. On man’s side it was sin. In Numbers 21:4-5, what ingratitude and rebellion. The people were safe, and enjoying manna, yet discontented. Can you wonder at judgment? (Numbers 21:6). Was it not so in Eden? First parents were safe, happy; manna of Paradise, yet discontented. Can you wonder that they fell under the curse? The serpent had bitten them.

2. On God’s side it was grace. In Numbers 21:7, you see terror; yet what plea? Only pity! Nevertheless vouchsafed (Numbers 21:8). Precisely so with our deliverance. When God beheld a race defiled and poisoned with the fiery serpent bite of sin, why did He interfere? (Job 33:24). It was all of grace (John 3:16).

II. The character which marked it. Somewhat singular that the Lord should have chosen to heal His people by bidding them look at a brazen serpent. He might have healed by a word; yet He chose the most hideous object. Why? for several reasons.

1. It was an appointment without any natural attraction. A piece of brass. The image of a serpent. Cold reason cried out, “Of what use is that? It is repulsive, not attractive. We will not believe. Let us reject it.” Was it not so with the Cross? (Isaiah 53:2-3; 1 Corinthians 1:23).

2. It was an emblem of the curse, without its hatefulness. Notice, it was a serpent, yet not taken from the wilderness. It was like the fiery serpents, but without their poison. So with the Lord Jesus. A Man in the “likeness of sinful flesh,” but not from the sons of Adam. Without sin. Hence the curse was represented, but not embodied. Enough to give validity to atonement, but not enough to invalidate atonement.

3. It was an object of faith, without limit to its efficacy. Elevated on high for all, even for most distant spectators. So with the Cross of Christ elevated for all (John 12:32). What limit? Age? (Young Timothy and St. Paul the aged.) Class? (Rich Joseph and wretched Lazarus.) Guilt? (Mary Magdalene and dying thief.) Listen, then, ye who say, “Gospel not for me.” True, you can do nothing; but you can look (Isaiah 45:22).

III. The consequences which result from it. With Israelites the poison was extracted, pain abated, health restored. It is so still. Come by faith to Jesus. Sin pardoned, conscience pacified, soul renewed. In one word, salvation. See this a little more fully.

1. Perfect salvation. We read of no return of the serpents. The people healed were relieved from the curse altogether. No half-salvation. It is so with all believers. If you have found Christ, you are fully pardoned. No reservations (1 John 1:7).

2. Instant salvation. When life was fainting, as the sufferers looked, their strength returned in a moment. Just as one penitent look to the crucified Christ brings a present salvation. Not a thing put off. “He that believeth hath everlasting life.”

3. Free salvation. These Israelites had not to walk to the pole, had not to use their own remedies. Only to look in their misery, and to live. Why should it be otherwise now? Perhaps some of you feel the bites of conscience; yet you have no peace. It may be that you rest too much on your own remedies. You do not see that all has been done, and that now the gift is free. In conclusion, let me speak to you who have looked, and who live. Do not think yourselves beyond danger. Like Israel, you may murmur or backslide. If so--

The brazen serpent

I. The danger of giving way to despondency. Immoderate grief over bereavement, undue depression over temporal misfortunes, extreme sensitiveness to the assaults which men may make upon us while we are seeking to follow Christ, morbid regret at the disappointment of our hopes of serving God in some peculiar way on which our hearts are set, and exaggerated ideas of the evil which will ensue from the refusal of some Edomite to do that which would have been of great benefit to us, that which would have cost him nothing, and which we had courteously requested at his hands--all these are at the next station on the line toward rebellion against God, and ought to be checked at once, before they lead to more serious consequences. A friend of mine, some years ago, received a letter from a missionary on the West Coast of Africa, in which, as a curiosity, some serpent eggs were contained. He laid them carefully aside, thinking to preserve them as they were; but one day, when he went to show them to a visitor, he discovered, to his dismay, that the heat of the drawer had hatched them into serpents, and there was a heap of crawling things before his eyes. So despondency is a serpent’s egg, which, if we are not careful, will hatch in our hearts into a serpent itself, and poison us with its venomous bite. It has the germ of serious and aggravated sin within it, and we must seek very speedily to overmaster it; nor need we have much difficulty in rising above it, for we have only to remember and believe that God is on our side, and all discouragement will disappear.

II. The typical significance of the method which, in obedience to God’s command, Moses adopted for the healing of the people. Here was, first of all, a disease. Alike in its origin and nature, the malady of sin is well illustrated by a serpent’s bite. Unless a cure be effected, the death of the soul must result. If we were but as sensible of our malady as these Israelites were of the disease that was burning up their bodies, we would cry out in an agony of earnestness for deliverance. But let us not forget to look at the cure which was here effected. “The brazen serpent,” says Alford, “made in the likeness of the serpents which had bitten them, represented to them the poison which had gone through their frames; and it was hung up there on the banner-staff as a trophy, to show that for the poison there was healing, that the plague had been overcome. In it there was no poison--only the likeness of it. Now, was not our Lord Jesus made in the likeness of sinful flesh?” The bitten Israelites were healed by looking to the serpent of brass; so the sinner is saved by believing in Jesus (Isaiah 45:22; Psalms 34:5). Two things are specially taught us by this emblem of faith. The first is, that the object of faith is not anything in ourselves. So long as we look in, we can see nothing to give us hope or happiness; but when we look to Jesus, we behold in Him a deliverer, and see in His righteousness a foundation on which we may securely rest. The eye is that which “takes in” the realities of the external world, and faith is that which” takes in” the truth about Christ. It is the receptive faculty of the soul; and when by it we receive and rest upon Christ for our salvation, our act corresponds in spirit to the look of the outward eye turned by the suffering Israelite on the uplifted serpent. Observe, I said, when we receive and rest on Christ; and this resting is the sacred thing taught us by this emblem of faith. “I will look to you, then, to arrange all that,” said one friend to another, at the close of a business conference; and that trustfulness which he expressed in the honour of his friend is of the same kind as the restful confidence which the believer has in his Lord.

III. But who may look? “Every one that is bitten.” There you might see the man all but dead, raising himself upon his arm, and straining his glazed eyes if haply he might behold the glittering symbol; yonder another, wiping away his tears of anguish to look upon the glorious object; and yonder still, a mother with her child, eagerly pointing to the flagstaff, if perchance she may fix her loved one’s gaze upon the mystic healer. But no one would be tempted to ask, will it heal me? for he would reason thus: it will cure any bitten one that looks, and therefore me. So “there is life for a look at the crucified One,” for “whosoever believeth.” (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)

Lifting up the brazen serpent

I. The person in mortal peril for whom the brazen serpent was made and lifted up. Our text saith, “It came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”

1. The fiery serpents first of all came among the people because they had despised God’s way and God’s bread. “The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” As an old divine says, “It was lonesome and longsome,” but still it was God’s way, and therefore it ought not to have been loathsome: His pillar of fire and cloud went before them, and His servants Moses and Aaron led them like a flock, and they ought to have followed cheerfully. This is one of the great standing follies of men; they cannot be content to wait on the Lord and keep His way, but they prefer a will and way of their own.

2. The people, also, quarrelled with God’s food. He gave them the best of the best, for “men did eat angels’ food”; but they called the manna by an opprobrious title, as if they thought it unsubstantial, and only fitted to puff them out, because it was easy of digestion, and did not breed in them that heat of blood and tendency to disease which a heavier diet would have brought with it. Being discontented with their God they quarrelled with the bread which He set upon their table, though it surpassed any that mortal man has ever eaten before or since. This is another of man’s follies; his heart refuses to feed upon God’s Word or believe God’s truth. He craves for the flesh-meat of carnal reason, the leeks and the garlic of superstitious tradition, and the cucumbers of speculation; he cannot bring his mind down to believe the Word of God, or to accept truth so simple, so fitted to the capacity of a child.

3. Observe concerning those persons for whom the brazen serpent was specially lifted up that they had been actually bitten by the serpents. The Lord sent fiery serpents among them, but it was not the serpents being among them that involved the lifting up of a brazen serpent, it was the serpents having actually poisoned them which led to the provision of a remedy. “It shall come to pass that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” God’s medicine is for the sick, and His healing is for the diseased. The grace of God through the atonement of our Lord Jesus Christ is for men who are actually and really guilty. What an awful thing it is to be bitten by a serpent! I dare say some of you recollect the case of Gurling one of the keepers of the reptiles in the Zoological Gardens. It happened in October, 1852. This unhappy man was about to part with a friend who was going to Australia, and according to the wont of many he must needs drink with him. He drank considerable quantities of gin, and though he would probably have been in a great passion if any one had called him drunk, yet reason and common-sense had evidently become overpowered. He went back to his post at the gardens in an excited state. He had some months before seen an exhibition of snake-charming, and this was on his poor muddled brain. He must emulate the Egyptians, and play with serpents. First ha took out of its cage a Morocco venom-snake, put it round his neck, twisted it about, and whirled it round about him. Happily for him it did not arouse itself so as to bite. The assistant-keeper cried out, “For God’s sake put back the snake!” but the foolish man replied, “I am inspired.” Putting back the venom-snake, he exclaimed, “Now for the cobra.” This deadly serpent was somewhat torpid with the cold of the previous night, and therefore the rash man placed it in his bosom till it revived, and glided downward till its head appeared below the back of his waistcoat. He took it by the body, about a foot from the head, and then seized it lower down by the other hand, intending to hold it by the tail and swing it round his head. He held it for an instant opposite to his face, and like a flash of lightning the serpent struck him between the eyes. The blood streamed down his face, and he calls! for help, but his companion fled in horror; and, as he told the jury, he did not know how long he was gone, for he was “in a maze.” When assistance arrived Gurling was sitting on a chair, having restored the cobra to its place. He said, “I am a dead man.” They put him in a cab, and took him to the hospital. First his speech went, he could only point to his poor throat and moan: then his vision failed him, and lastly his hearing. His pulse gradually sank, and in one hour from the time at which he had been struck he was a corpse. There was only a little mark upon the bridge of his nose, but the poison spread over the body, and he was a dead man. I tell you that story that you may use it as a parable and learn never to play with sin, and also in order to bring vividly before you what it is to be bitten by a serpent. Suppose that Gurling could have been cured by looking at a piece of brass, would it not have been good news for him? There was no remedy for that poor infatuated creature, but there is a remedy for you. For men who have been bitten by the fiery serpents of sin Jesus Christ is lifted up: not for you only who are as yet playing with the serpent, not for you only who have warmed it in your bosom, and felt it creeping over your flesh, but for you who are actually bitten, and are mortally wounded.

4. The bite of the serpent was painful. We are told in the text that these serpents were “fiery” serpents, which may perhaps refer to their colour, but more probably has reference to the burning effects of their venom. It inflamed the blood so that every vein became a boiling river, swollen with anguish. In some men that poison of asps which we call sin has inflamed their minds. They are restless, discontented, and full of fear and anguish. Jesus died for such as are at their wits’ end: for such as cannot think straight, for those who are tumbled up and down in their minds, for those who are condemned already. What a comfortable thing that we are able to tell you this!

5. The bite of these serpents was, as I have told you, mortal. The Israelites could have no question about that, because in their own presence “much people of Israel died.” Now, we know that many have perished as the result of sin. We are not in doubt as to what sin will do, for we are told by the infallible Word, that “the wages of sin is death,” and, yet again, “Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” We know, also, that this death is endless misery, “where their worm dieth not, and their fire is not quenched.” We believe in what the Lord has said in all its solemnity of dread, and, knowing the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men to escape therefrom.

6. There is no limit set to the stage of poisoning: however far gone, the remedy still had power.

II. The remedy provided for him. This was as singular as it was effectual.

1. It was purely of Divine origin, and it is clear that the invention of it, and the putting of power into it, was entirely of God. Shall the bite of a serpent be cured by looking at a serpent? Shall that which brings death also bring life? But herein lay the excellency of the remedy, that it was of Divine origin; for when God ordains a cure He is by that very fact bound to put potency into it. He will not devise a failure, nor prescribe a mockery.

2. This particular remedy of a serpent lifted on a pole was exceedingly instructive, though I do not suppose that Israel understood it. We have been taught by our Lord and know the meaning. It was a serpent impaled upon a pole. Wonder of wonders that our Lord Jesus should condescend to be symbolised by a dead serpent. The brazen serpent had no venom of itself, but it took the form of a fiery serpent. Christ is no sinner, and in Him is no sin. But the brazen serpent was in the form of a serpent; and so was Jesus sent forth by God “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” He came under the law, and sin was imputed to Him, and therefore He came under the wrath and curse of God for our sakes.

3. Please to recollect that in all the camp of Israel there was but one remedy for serpent-bite, and that was the brazen serpent; and there was but one brazen serpent, not two. Israel might not make another. If they had made a second, it would have had no effect. There is one Saviour, and only one. There is none other name given underheaven among men whereby we must be saved. Oh, sinner, look to Jesus on the Cross, for He is the one remedy for all forms of sin’s poisoned wounds.

4. There was but one healing serpent, and that one was bright and lustrous. It was a serpent of brass, and brass is a shining metal. This was newly-made brass, and therefore not dimmed, and whenever the sun shone, there flashed forth a brightness from this brazen serpent. It might have been a serpent of wood or of any other metal if God had so ordained; but He commanded that it must be of brass, that it might have a brightness about it. What a brightness there is about our Lord Jesus Christ! If we do but exhibit Him in His own true metal He is lustrous in the eyes of men.

5. Once more, this remedy was an enduring one. It was a serpent of brass, and I suppose it remained in the midst of the camp from that day forward. Had it been made of other materials it might have been broken, or have decayed, but a serpent of brass would last as long as fiery serpents pestered the desert camp. As long as there was a man bitten there was the serpent of brass to heal him. What a comfort is this, that Jesus is still able to save to the uttermost all that come to God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them!

III. The application of the remedy, or the link between the serpent-bitten man and the brass serpent which was to heal him. What was the link?

1. It was of the most simple kind imaginable. The brazen serpent might have been, if God had so ordered it, carried into the house where the sick man was, but it was not so. It might have been applied to him by rubbing: he might have been expected to repeat a certain form of prayer, or to have a priest present to perform a ceremony, but there was nothing of the kind; he had only to look. It was well that the cure was so simple, for the danger was so frequent. There is life in a look at Jesus; is not this simple enough?

2. But please to notice how very personal it was. A man could not be cured by anything anybody else could do for him. If he had been bitten by the serpent and had refused to look to the serpent of brass, and had gone to his bed, no physician could help him. A pious mother might kneel down and pray for him, but it would be of no use. Sisters might come in and plead, ministers might be called in to pray that the man might live; but he must die despite their prayers if he did not look. It is just so with you. Some of you have written to me begging me to pray for you: so I have, but it avails nothing unless you yourselves believe in Jesus Christ. There is nothing in His death to save you, there is nothing in His life to save you, unless you will trust Him. It has come to this, you must look, and look for yourself.

3. And then, again, it is very instructive. This looking, what did it mean? It meant this--self-help must be abandoned, and God must be trusted.

IV. The cure effected. “When he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”

1. He was healed at once. He had not to wait five minutes, nor five seconds. It is done like a flash of lightning; pardon is not a work of time. Sanctification needs a lifetime, but justification needs no more than a moment. Thou believest, thou livest.

2. This remedy healed again and again. Very possibly after a man had been healed he might go back to his work, and be attacked by a second serpent, for there were broods of them about. What had he to do? Why, to look again, and if he was wounded a thousand times he must look a thousand times. If you have sin on your conscience, look to Jesus. The healthiest way of living where serpents swarm is never to take your eye off the brazen serpent at all.

3. This cure was of universal efficacy to all who used it.

V. A lesson for those who love their Lord. What ought we to do? We should imitate Moses, whose business it was to set the brazen serpent upon a pole. It is your business and mine to lift up the gospel of Christ Jesus, so that all may see it. Publish Christ and His salvation. He was never meant to be treated as a curiosity in a museum; He is intended to be exhibited in the highways, that those who are sin-bitten may look at Him. “But I have no proper pole,” says one. The best sort of pole to exhibit Christ upon is a high one, so that He may be seen the further. Exalt Jesus. Speak well of His name. I do not know any other virtue that there can be in the pole but its height. The more you can speak in your Lord’s praise, the higher you can lift Him up, the better; but for all other styles of speech there is nothing to be said. Do lift Christ up. “Oh,” says one, “but I have not a long standard.” Then lift Him up on such as you have, for there are short people about who will be able to see by your means. I think I told you once of a picture which I saw of the brazen serpent. I want the Sunday-school teachers to listen to this. The artist represented all sorts of people clustering round the pole, and as they looked the horrible snakes dropped off their arms, and they lived. There was such a crowd around the pole that a mother could not get near it. She carried a little babe, which a serpent had bitten. You could see the blue marks of the venom. As she could get no nearer, the mother held her child aloft, and turned its little head that it might gaze with its infant eye upon the brazen serpent and live. Do this with your little children, you Sunday-school teachers. Even while they are yet little, pray that they may look to Jesus Christ and live; for there is no bound set to their age. Old men snake-bitten came hobbling on their crutches. “Eighty years old am I,” saith one, “but I have looked to the brazen serpent, and I am healed.” Little boys were brought out by their mothers, though as yet they could hardly speak plainly, and they cried in child language, “I look at the great snake and it bless me.” All ranks, and sexes, and characters, and dispositions looked and lived. Who will look to Jesus at this good hour? (C. H. Spurgeon.)

The cure for the malady of sin

Observe analogy between cure for serpent’s bite narrated here, and cure for malady of sin.

I. occasion for cure. Bitten. Sinned.

II. Origin of remedy. God’s grace.

III. Application of remedy. Serpent lifted up. Christ. (W. Ormiston, D. D.)

The brazen serpent

1. As it seemed to human wisdom a most foolish tiling to be healed by the bare and only sight of a brazen serpent, so to all natural wise men of the world it seemeth as unlikely and unreasonable that any should be saved by faith in Christ crucified.

2. Seeing the serpent was a sign of Christ, we learn that Christ was preached and published in the time of the law, albeit darkly and obscurely. For as there is but one salvation, so there is bat one way to attain unto it; to wit, faith in Christ.

3. In this type we see the nature of the sacraments. The brazen serpent in itself had no operation to work anything; it had no virtue to cure or recover any man of any disease. The sacraments of themselves cannot confer grace, only they are instruments of God’s mercies, which He useth of His goodness toward us to convey-to us good things.

4. This present type teacheth us that we are justified by faith alone, without the works of the law. For as the Israelites stung of these serpents were cured, so are we saved; as health was offered by the serpent, so is salvation by Christ. But the Israelites did nothing at all, but only look up to the brazen serpent; they were not called to make satisfaction for their rebellion, or to go on pilgrimage, nor so much as to dress and bind up their wounds, but only to behold the serpent set upon the pole. There is required nothing of us touching our justification and salvation but to fix the eyes of our faith upon Christ. True it is, many other virtues and graces are required to make up the full perfection of a Christian man, that he may be complete, wanting nothing; yet he is justified, and doth stand as righteous in the sight of God by faith only.

5. Great consolation ariseth from this similitude to all such as are weak in faith and feel the corruptions of their hearts pressing them, and the temptations of Satan often overcoming them. For we have great comfort given us to fight the enemies of our souls by consideration of these fierce and fiery serpents. True it is they did continually bite and sting the children of Israel; yet they could not destroy them, for they had a remedy at hand to help themselves. So hath God restrained the rage of all the enemies of our peace and salvation. For howsoever the devil and his angels are always tempting, their strength is diminished, their will to hurt is greater than their power of hurting, so that they cannot execute the cruelty they desire.

6. Again, note that God requireth not of the Israelites stung in the wilderness the use of both eyes, nor exacteth a perfect sight to behold the serpent. Such as looked upon it with a weak and dim sight, even with half an eye only, there being among them young and old, strong and weak, sharp-sighted and blear-eyed; yet all that saw the serpent set up were cured, not for the goodness of their sight, but for the promise and ordinance of God. So such as have a true faith, though it be as a grain of mustard-seed, which is the least of all seeds, can lay hold on Christ and apply Him to themselves. A small drop of water is as well and truly water as the whole ocean sea; a little spark is true fire as well as a mighty flame; a little quantity of earth is as truly earth as the whole globe thereof. So a small measure of faith is as well true faith as a full persuasion and assurance, and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it.

7. Lastly, this teacheth us what is the nature and property of a true justifying faith, and wherein it consisteth, namely, in a special and particular application of Christ’s righteousness to our own selves. It was not enough for these Israelites which were stung that others should look upon the serpent set up, but it was required of every one (to work the cure) to behold it himself. So must we have a particular faith in Christ, apprehending His merits. (W. Attersoll.)


Verses 16-20

Numbers 21:16-20

Spring up, O well.

A song of the pilgrimage

I. The needs of human pilgrimage.

1. How indispensable are the things which we need.

2. How many are the things which we need.

3. How constant are our needs. We may change our place and our circumstances, but we never change our dependent condition.

II. The divine provision for the needs of human pilgrimage.

1. Promised by God.

2. Bestowed in connection with human effort.

3. Enkindled human joy, which was expressed in this song.

4. Suitably commemorated. Let us be eager to perpetuate the memory of our mercies.

III. The continuousness of human pilgrimage. The well was not the goal: a place to halt, but not to settle. (W. Jones.)

A song at the well-head

I. These people required water as we greatly need grace, and there was a promise given concerning the supply. “The Lord spake unto Moses, Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” Beloved, we have a promise. A promise? nay, a thousand promises! God’s people were never in any plight whatever but what there was a promise to meet that condition.

1. The supply promised here was a Divine supply: “I will give them water.” Who else could satisfy those flocks and herds? By what mechanism or by what human toil could all those multitudes of people have received enough to drink? God can do it, and He will. The supply of grace that you are to receive in your time of need is a Divine supply. You are not to look to man for grace.

2. As it was a Divine supply, so also it was a suitable one. The people were thirsty, and the promise was, “I will give them water.” What dost thou want? Go and lay open thy needs before the Lord. Tell Him what it is thou requirest, if thou knowest, and then add to thy prayer, “And what I know not that I need, yet give me, for Thou art able to do exceeding abundantly above all that I can ask or even think: not according to my apprehension of my necessities, but according to Thy perception of my needs, deal with Thy servant, O Lord, and grant me that which is most suitable to my case.” “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.”

3. Observe, too, that the supply promised was an abundant supply. No child of God shall be left to perish for want of the necessary supplies. “I will give them water.”

4. As it was a Divine supply, a suitable supply, and an abundant supply, so also it was a sure supply. “I will give them water.” It is not, “I may, perhaps, do it; possibly there shall be refreshment for them”; but, “I will give them water.” “Oh! the splendour of the Lord’s “shalls” and “wills”! They never fail.

II. Observe the song. These people had not been singing for years; ever since the day when they had sung at the Red Sea, “Sing unto the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously,” the minstrelsy of Israel had been hushed, except when they danced before the calf of gold; but for their God they had had little or no music. But now they come together to the digging of the well, and the children of Israel sing this song, “Spring up, O well; sing ye unto it.”

1. This song may be looked upon as the voice of cheerfulness. There was no water, but they were still in good spirits. Supplies were short, but their courage was still great. Cheerfulness in want, cheerfulness upon the bed of pain, cheerfulness under slander, singing, like the nightingale, in the night, praising God when the thorn is at the breast, this is a high Christian attainment, which we should seek after, and not be content without.

2. I like, too, the look of these children of Israel, singing to the Lord before the water came, praising Him while they were yet thirsty, living for a little while upon the recollections of the past, believing that He who smote the rock, and the waters gushed out, and who gave them bread from heaven, would surely supply their needs. Let us pitch a tune and join with them, however low our estate may be.

3. Note, again, that this song was the voice not so much of natural cheerfulness as of cheerfulness sustained by faith. They believed the promise, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” They sang the song of expectation. I think this is one of the peculiar enjoyments of faith, to be the substance of things hoped for. The joy of hope, who shall measure it?

4. This song, also, was no doubt greatly increased in its volume, and more elevated in its tone, when the water did begin to spring. After the elders of the people had digged for awhile, the flowing crystal began to leap into the air; they saw it run over the margin of the well, the multitude pressed around to quench their thirst, and then they sang, “Spring up, O well! Flow on, flow on, perennial fount! Flow on, thou wondrous stream Divinely given! Flow on, and let the praises of those who drink, flow also! Sing ye unto it, and ye that drink lift up your songs, and ye that mark your neighbours as their eyes flash with delight as they receive the needed refreshment, let your song increase as you see the joy of others.” All ye who have received anything of Divine grace, sing ye unto it! Bless God by singing and praising His name while you are receiving His favours.

III. The song was a prayer. “Spring up, O well,” was virtually a prayer to God that He would make the well spring up, only it was faith’s way of singing her prayer.

1. We would remark of this prayer, that it went at once to the work, and sought for that which was required. What was needed? Not a well, bat water; not mere digging in the sand, but the obtaining and the drinking of the water. Let me remind you that it is very easy for us to forget what it is that we want, and to be satisfied with something short of it. Now, what we need is not the means of grace, but the grace of the means. Strive after vital godliness, real soul-work, the life-giving operation of the Spirit of God in your hearts, or else you may have the well, but you will not have any springings therefrom. Remember, then, it went direct to the point.

2. Notice, also, that this prayer was the prayer of faith, like the song. Now, “without faith it is impossible to please God”: this is emphatically true with regard to prayer. He who pleads with God in unbelief really insults Hind, and will get no blessing.

3. Notice, further, that it was united prayer. All the people prayed, “Spring up, O well!” I daresay that was a prayer-meeting at which everybody prayed, for they were all thirsty, and therefore they all said, “Spring up, O well!” What blessed meetings those are when the souls of all present are in it!

IV. They began with a promise; they turned the promise into a song and into a prayer, and they did not stop there, but then they went to work. “God helps them that help themselves,” is an old proverb, and it is true with God’s people as well as true of Providence. If we want to have God’s blessing, we must not expect to receive it by lying passive.

1. When God intends to bless a people, effort is always esteemed to be honourable. “The princes digged the well, the nobles of the people digged it.” They were not ashamed of the work: And when God shall bless a Church and people, they must all feel that it is a very great honour to do anything in the service of God.

2. But it was also effort which was accomplished by very feeble means. They digged the well, and they digged it with their staves--not very first-class tools. Would not the mattock and the spade have been better? Ay, but they did as they were told. They digged with their staves. These, I suppose, were simply their rods, which, like the sheiks in the East, they carried in their hands as an emblem of government, somewhat similar to the crook of the shepherd. These they used, according as they were commanded. Well, we must dig with our staves. We must dig as we can. We must use what abilities we have.

3. It was effort in God’s order. They digged the well “by the direction of the lawgiver.” We must not serve God according to our fancies. Let us keep close to the good old paths which are laid down in Holy Writ, and, digging the well, we shall get the water.

4. It was effort made in faith. They digged the well, but as they digged it they felt so certain that the water would come that they sang at the work, “Spring up, O well!” This is the true way to work if we would get a blessing. We must preach in faith, believing that the Word cannot return unto our Master void. We must teach in the Sabbath-school in faith, believing that the children will be led to seek Christ early, and to find Him. We must distribute the tract in faith, believing that if we cast our bread upon the waters, we shall find it after many days. You must take care that you have this faith. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

The song at the well

I. The well of salvation choked up with rubbish of superstition and ignorance, technical theologies, dry dissertations, dogmatic controversies, &c.

II. The well of salvation cleared out. A princely and noble work.

III. The work of opening up the well of salvation to men should be done with joyfulness. (Hom. Monthly.)

The song of the well

What is celebrated with such sparkling joy in this little burst of melody is the happy union among all ranks, and the spirit of universal goodwill and co-operation in the work--giving cheerful angury for the future of the tribes in entering on the promised land, and a lively demonstration of popular confidence in their leaders.

1. There is a personal lesson respecting the spirit in which we ought to do our work. When the people were called to bore for water in a novel fashion, how inspiriting it is to read, “Then Israel sang this song!” This lightened their toil, and helped to prosper the issue. Thank God, “He gives us songs in the very night.” Let us remember how our Lord Himself, on the eve of His betrayal, and in full view of the bitter Cross, alleviated His sorrows and braced His spirit for the task--“He sang a hymn.” What a lesson for this work-a-day world, when nothing worth doing can be undertaken without something being endured! But “a cheerful heart doeth good like a medicine.” And singing is infectious. They sang the song, and they digged the well. So work, and so sing.

2. A social lesson--the blessings of united effort. We are to mark how zealously all ranks joined in the work, and how “the leaders led in Israel.” When Israel thus laboured, we hear of no disorder. Murmurings were stilled. High and low were full of heart and full of hope, because full of love.

3. A philanthropic lesson--dig a well. This well became a lasting blessing, celebrated in immortal song. A disciple of Mohammed, it is said, came to the prophet one day and asked, “What shall I best do as a memorial to my mother who is dead?” to which he replied, “Dig a well, and call it by her name, and put upon it, ‘This well is for my mother.’” Beautiful idea! a monument truly serviceable, and therefore sure to last. Some memories are “writ in water,” but here a mother’s name is blissfully perpetuated in supplying the pure refreshing draught to weary wayfarers. This form of good endures like “a joy for ever,” trickling down from age to age. “Dig a well.” Whoso giveth a cup of cold water shall in no wise lose his reward.

4. A spiritual lesson. “Gather the people to Me; I will give them water.” The point here emphasised is the connection between promise, preparation, and prayer, if we would win the privilege of drawing water with joy from the wells of salvation. (A. H. Drysdale, M. A.)

The springing well

This rising fountain may be viewed as a beautiful emblem of the springing up of grace in the heart, when it becomes the subject of the life-giving influences of the Holy Spirit, and which Christ Himself takes occasion to illustrate by the same kind of allusion, when conversing with the Samaritan woman. The water that He will give to them that ask Him is admirably descriptive of the vitality, purity, and perpetuity of grace. The ministers of Christ, as these princes of the people, at the command of God, and under the superintendence of His providence, move the ground, where the water of life springs up and yields the purest satisfaction, and the heart becomes as if itself an inward source of good. How many hearts, through the gift of Christ, have become as wells of living water, rising fountains of spiritual thoughts, and of heavenly affections, sweet and refreshing! It was under the direction of His providence, and the influences of His Spirit, that they have become so. And now, it is only for time to bring forth His eternal purposes, and at the word of His grace the result will be, where least looked for or thought of, as when the fountain of Beer, not before known of, rose at the command, “Spring up, O well!” This it is that, seen amidst the barren wastes of nature, delights the eye and cheers the heart of every Christian, who not less longs and prays for the life of souls, and the communications of living streams from Christ, than those at this station longed for the cooling spring. (W. Seaton.)


Verses 21-35

Numbers 21:21-35

Sihon would not suffer Israel to pass.

The wicked hate and persecute the godly without any just cause

This is the practice of wicked men to pursue the children of God with all despiteful dealing, albeit they offer no occasion of hurt unto them. Cain; Joseph’s brethren, &c. The reasons are very plain.

1. For it seemeth unto them more than strange that the faithful are not brethren with them in evil, but separate themselves from them, and will touch no unclean thing. This is that which the Apostle Peter witnesseth (1 Peter 4:4-5). But it is better for us to have the haired of men than fail in any part of our duty unto God.

2. No marvel if the wicked hate the godly, for the world hateth Christ.

Uses:

1. We may assure ourselves that it is a lamentable condition to dwell among such malicious and mischievous enemies.

2. Seeing this is the entertainment that we must look for in the world, it behoves us to live in unity and to love one another as the children of the Father and the disciples of Christ.

3. Seeing hatred lodgeth in the heart of a wicked man toward the faithful, it is our duty to pray to God to be delivered from unreasonable and evil men (2 Thessalonians 3:2-3). This David declareth (Psalms 35:12-13; Psalms 35:15-17). Thus doth God wean us from the love of this world, that we should long after His kingdom, where is fulness of joy for evermore. (W. Attersoll.)

The king’s highway

I. The king’s highway should be a public road. Royalty ought to be democracy personified. What the king holds is for the people’s use; what he does, for their good.

II. The king’s highway should, therefore, be, free, But, alas! what king’s highway is free? There are taxes and hindrances, and some are not allowed to pass it at all. National jealousies and pride bar the national highway.

III. The king’s highway being closed, injures those who close it.

1. It makes enemies. Those who demand access are sore at the refusal.

2. It does not accomplish the object in view. Those who wish to get through, find other ways round.

3. It causes loss. The Israelites would have paid for all they required, and so have benefited the Edomites.

IV. There is one king’s highway which is free to all, from which none are turned back, which is free from toll and safe from foes. This is that which Christ has opened, and which leads straight to the throne of God. (Homilist.)


Verses 32-35

Numbers 21:32-35

Og the king of Bashan went out against them.

War with the king of Bashan

When God had removed one great rub out of Israel’s way to Canaan, namely, Sihon, king of Heshbon, now starts up another remora, greater (at least in person) than the former, namely, Og king of Bashan, who came forth to war against them (Numbers 21:33-35), but more largely described (Deuteronomy 3:1-22), wherein God’s kindness to Israel in that war with the king of Bashan is amply characterised.

1. The occasion of the war. Og came forth and gave the first assault against Israel, before they assaulted him or his people (Numbers 21:2), together with which we are told what a formidable adversary this king was, being a man of prodigious stature, whereof a conjecture may easily be collected from the vast length of his bed (Numbers 21:11).

2. The management of this war.

3. The event of this conquest, which was the consequence of the victory, namely, the distribution of this new conquered country to the tribes of Reuben and Gad, and to the half tribe of Manasseh (verses 12-17), and the terms upon which this country was thus distributed to those tribes (verses 18-20), which happy event was a pledge for encouraging Joshua to be confident of all his future conquests (verses 21, 22). From this whole history arises this following, namely, when one evil or impediment in our way to heaven is removed, God often permits another and worse to spring up for our new exercise; as it was here with Israel, no sooner had they vanquished Sihon (who stood in their way to Canaan), but immediately Og starts up to make them a new opposition. His formidable stature might have made Israel to fly, as niter Goliath made them, for want of faith (1 Samuel 17:24). He was likely one of the remnant of those Rephaims, or giants, whom Chedorlaomer and his company of kings smote in Ashtoreth (Genesis 14:5, with Joshua 13:12), for Og reigned there. (C. Ness.)
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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 21:4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/numbers-21.html. 1905-1909. New York.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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