Verse-by-Verse Bible Commentary

Numbers 21:8

Then the Lord said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live."
New American Standard Version

Bible Study Resources

Concordances:
Nave's Topical Bible - God Continued...;   Intercession;   Israel;   Miracles;   Salvation;   Serpent;   Symbols and Similitudes;   Scofield Reference Index - Miracles;   Thompson Chain Reference - Bible Stories for Children;   Children;   Home;   Miracles;   Pleasant Sunday Afternoons;   Religion;   Stories for Children;   Torrey's Topical Textbook - Death of Christ, the;   Desert, Journey of Israel through the;   Miracles Wrought through Servants of God;   Salvation;   Serpents;  
Dictionaries:
American Tract Society Bible Dictionary - Miracle;   Nehushtan;   Serpents;   Bridgeway Bible Dictionary - Snake;   Baker Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology - Fulfillment;   Easton Bible Dictionary - Brass;   Ensign;   Nehushtan;   Prayer;   Seraphim;   Fausset Bible Dictionary - Banner;   Cross;   Nehushtan;   Serpent;   Serpent, Brazen;   Holman Bible Dictionary - Banner;   Hezekiah;   Nehushtan;   Numbers, Book of;   Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible - Banner, Ensign, Standard;   Israel;   Jephthah;   Moses;   Numbers, Book of;   Serpent, Brazen;   Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament - Moses ;   Poison;   Serpent;   Morrish Bible Dictionary - Miracles;   Seraphim;   Serpent;   Type;   People's Dictionary of the Bible - Chief parables and miracles in the bible;   Kehushtan;   Serpent;   Wilson's Dictionary of Bible Types - Pole;   Serpent;   Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary - Armies;   Brazen Serpent;  
Encyclopedias:
Condensed Biblical Cyclopedia - On to Canaan;   Moses, the Man of God;   International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - Banner;   Images;   Moses;   Pentateuch;   Pole;   Serpent;   Kitto Biblical Cyclopedia - Adder;   The Jewish Encyclopedia - Allegorical Interpretation;   Bat Ḳ;   Brazen Serpent;   Elohist;   Midrash Haggadah;   Nehushtan;   Simeon, Tribe of;  
Devotionals:
Faith's Checkbook - Devotion for April 10;  

Adam Clarke Commentary

Make thee a fiery serpent - Literally, make thee a seraph.

And put it upon a pole - נס על al nes, upon a standard or ensign.

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Clarke, Adam. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "The Adam Clarke Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/acc/numbers-21.html. 1832.

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

Make thee a fiery serpent - i. e. a serpent resembling in appearance the reptiles which attacked the people. The resemblance was of the essence of the symbolism (compare 1 Samuel 6:5). As the brass serpent represented the instrument of their chastisement, so the looking unto it at God‘s word denoted acknowledgment of their sin, longing for deliverance from its penalty, and faith in the means appointed by God for healing. In the serpent of brass, harmless itself, but made in the image of the creature that is accursed above others Genesis 3:14, the Christian fathers rightly see a figure of Him John 3:14-15 who though “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” Hebrews 7:26, was yet “made sin” 2 Corinthians 5:21, and “made a curse for us” Galatians 3:13. And the eye of faith fixed on Him beholds the manifestation at once of the deserts of sin, of its punishment imminent and deprecated, and of the method of its remission devised by God Himself.

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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bnb/numbers-21.html. 1870.

John Gill's Exposition of the Whole Bible

And the Lord said unto Moses,.... Out of the cloud; or, it may be, Moses went into the sanctuary, and there prayed, and the Lord answered him from between the cherubim:

make them a fiery serpent; not a real one, but the likeness of one, one that should very much resemble the fiery serpents Israel had been bitten with:

and set it upon a pole; a standard, banner, or ensign, as the word signifies; perhaps meaning one of the poles on which their ensigns were carried: the Targum of Jonathan renders it, on an high place, that so it might be seen by all in the camp:

and it shall come to pass, that everyone that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live; which is very wonderful, that by looking to the figure of a serpent, men should be cured of the bites of real ones, and which bites were deadly; the virtue of healing could not come from the figure, but from God, who appointed it to be made, the Targum of Jonathan adds, that one bitten should live,"if he directed his heart to the Word of the Lord,'even to that divine Logos or Word of God, whose lifting up was figured hereby; see John 3:14.

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The New John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible Modernised and adapted for the computer by Larry Pierce of Online Bible. All Rights Reserved, Larry Pierce, Winterbourne, Ontario.
A printed copy of this work can be ordered from: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 1 Iron Oaks Dr, Paris, AR, 72855
Bibliographical Information
Gill, John. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/geb/numbers-21.html. 1999.

Wesley's Explanatory Notes

And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.

A fiery serpent — That is, the figure of a serpent in brass, which is of a fiery colour. This would require some time: God would not speedily take off the judgment, because he saw they were not throughly humbled.

Upon a pole — That the people might see it from all parts of the camp, and therefore the pole must be high, and the serpent large.

When he looketh — This method of cure was prescribed, that it might appear to be God's own work, and not the effect of nature or art: and that it might be an eminent type of our salvation by Christ. The serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison, of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ.

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These files are public domain and are a derivative of an electronic edition that is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library Website.
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Wesley, John. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "John Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/wen/numbers-21.html. 1765.

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible

Numbers 21:8. Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole The author of the Book of Wisdom sets this matter in its proper light, when he calls this fiery serpent a sign of salvation to put them in remembrance of God's laws; for he that turned himself towards it, says he, was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by thee, who art the Saviour of all. The healing virtue which accompanied the looking upon this image was derived from God alone, who was pleased in this manner to display his power, to make the Israelites sensible that these serpents were sent by him; and that this seemingly weak method of cure might convince them, that they had no reason to fear any evil whatsoever, provided they but made God their friend, whose power could procure so easy a remedy in all emergencies. To the same purpose our Saviour, in curing the man born blind, put clay upon his eyes, to shew that the cure was extraordinary and supernatural. Here all interpreters observe a remarkable similitude between the virtue of this brazen serpent erected on a pole, and that of Christ's death, and which is taken notice of by Christ himself. John 3:14. For, as no one could imagine that the bare sight of a serpent, imaged in brass, would cure the serpent's poison; to nothing is more true, however incredible it appeared at the time of the event, than that the only effectual means of propagating the Christian Religion, and of drawing all nations to the faith and obedience of the Gospel, and consequently of saving those who were sincere in that profession from the sting of death and the power of the devil, that old serpent, (Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2.) was the lifting up of Christ upon the cross, or putting him to death. This interpretation sufficiently removes all the objections of Voltaire, and such enemies of the Old Testament as pretend that Moses, by forming this brazen serpent, was himself an encourager of that idolatry which he so severely reprehends in others. There is no ground from the text to suppose that this brazen serpent was ever intended as an object of worship. The word which we render pole in this verse, signifies an ensign or banner; a sign erected with an intention that people may gather around it. Isaiah 5:26; Isaiah 49:22.

See commentary on Numbers 21:9

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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/numbers-21.html. 1801-1803.

Matthew Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible

A fiery serpent, i.e. the figure of a serpent in brass, which is of a fiery colour. This would require some time: God would not speedily take off the judgment, because he saw they were not thoroughly humbled.

Set it on a pole, that the people might see it from all parts of the camp; and therefore the pole must be high, and the serpent large.

This method of cure was prescribed, partly that it might appear to be God’s own work, and not the effect of nature or art; and partly that it might be an eminent type of our salvation by Christ. See John 3:14,15. The serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, Romans 8:3, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lift up for our salvation; and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ.

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Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". Matthew Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/mpc/numbers-21.html. 1685.

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

8.Make thee a fiery serpent — This was an astonishing answer to the prayer. Moses doubtless expected that the serpents would disappear, as the plagues had vanished from Egypt when he interceded in behalf of Pharaoh. But instead of this he is directed to provide an antidote for those who may be bitten now or in the future. It was to be set upon a pole or standard, that it might be seen in the extremities of the camp, probably two miles distant from the tabernacle.

When he looketh — The healing involved, 1.) A confession of inability to heal himself; 2.) The exercise of his own volitions in a manner arbitrarily prescribed by God, and for which no reasons are assigned; 3.) Simple faith in God was requisite for putting forth the action necessary to the cure. The condition was so simple that every one could perform it. Even the apparently dying could turn his languid eye toward the brazen serpent and be healed. It is evident that every one who, being bitten, perished in the camp after this great antidote was devised died as wilful a death as the suicide.

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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/numbers-21.html. 1874-1909.

George Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary

Brazen. Hebrew, "fiery." But, in the following verse, it is said to have been "of brass." We might translate, "make a seraph, and fix it upon a standard," (Calmet) in which form it would resemble one suspended on a cross. It was placed at the entrance of the tabernacle. (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology) Ezechias afterwards destroyed it, because it was treated with superstitious honours, 4 Kings xviii. 4. Thus the best things are often abused. (Haydock) --- God commands this image to be erected, while he forbids all images of idols. (Worthington) --- By comparing the different passages of Scripture we may discern the true import of them. Pictures may often prove very useful and instructive. They serve the ignorant instead of books. But then the ignorant must be carefully instructed not to treat them with improper respect, as St. Gregory admonishes. And is not the same caution requisite for those who read even the word of God, lest they wrest it to their own destruction, as both the unlearned and the unstable frequently do, 2 Peter iii. 16. If every thing must be rejected which is liable to abuse, what part of the creation will be spared? The Bible, the sacraments, all creatures must be laid aside. For we read, (Romans viii. 20, 22,) the creature was made subject to vanity --- every creature groaneth. (Haydock) --- It is probable that Moses represented on the standard such a serpent, as had been the instrument of death. This was not intended for a charm or talisman, as Marsham would impiously pretend. (Chron. x. p. 148.) Such inventions proceed from the devil; and the Marsi were famous for curing the bites of serpents, by giving certain plates of brass. (Arnob. ii.) See Psalm lviii. 5. But this image was set up by God's express command; and the Book of Wisdom (xvi. 5, 7) assures us, that the effect was entirely to be attributed to him, the figure of a brazen serpent being rather calculated to increase than to remove the danger. (Kimchi; Muis) Hence Jonathan well observes, that only those were healed who raised their hearts to God. (Calmet)

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Haydock, George Leo. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "George Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/hcc/numbers-21.html. 1859.

E.W. Bullinger's Companion Bible Notes

said. See note on Numbers 3:40.

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Bullinger, Ethelbert William. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "E.W. Bullinger's Companion bible Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/bul/numbers-21.html. 1909-1922.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

(8) Make thee a fiery serpent.—The single Hebrew word which is here employed is saraph (a seraph), or burning one, as in Numbers 21:6, where the word nehashim—serpents—occurs also. The meaning is explained in the following verse, in which it is said that Moses made “a serpent of brass.”

Set it upon a pole.—Better, a standard. The LXX. have σημεῖον, the Vulgate signum. The Hebrew word (nes) is the same which occurs in Exodus 17:15, “Jehovah-nissi”—i.e., Jehovah is my standard or banner.

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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/numbers-21.html. 1905.

Treasury of Scripture Knowledge

And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.
Psalms 106:43-45; 145:8
Reciprocal: 2 Kings 18:4 - the brazen serpent;  Psalm 107:20 - healed;  Isaiah 45:22 - Look;  Luke 6:19 - sought;  Luke 24:44 - in the law;  John 5:46 - for

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Torrey, R. A. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tsk/numbers-21.html.

Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

8.Make thee a fiery serpent. Nothing would, at first sight, appear more unreasonable than that a brazen serpent should be made, the sight of which should extirpate the deadly poison; but this apparent absurdity was far better suited to render the grace of God conspicuous than as if there had been anything natural in the remedy. If the serpents had been immediately removed, they would have deemed it to be an accidental occurrence, and that the evil had vanished by natural means. If, in the aid afforded, anything had been applied, bearing an affinity to fit and appropriate remedies, then also the power and goodness of God would have been thrown into the shade. In order, therefore, that they might perceive themselves to be rescued from death by the mere grace of God alone, a mode of preservation was chosen so discordant with human reason, as to be almost a subject for laughter. At the same time it had the effect of trying the obedience of the people, to prescribe a mode of seeking preservation, whichbrought all their senses into subjection and captivity. It was a foolish thing to turn the eyes to a serpent of brass, to prevent the ill effects of a poisonous bite; for what, according to man’s judgment, could a lifeless statue, lifted up on high, profit? But it is the peculiar virtue of faith, that we should willingly be fools, in order that we may learn to be wise only from the mouth of God. This afterwards more clearly appeared in the substance of this type: for, when Christ compares Himself to this serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness, (John 3:14,) it was not a mere common similitude which He employs, but He teaches us, that what had been shewn forth in this dark shadow, was completed in Himself. And, surely, unless the brazen serpent had been a symbol of spiritual grace, it would not have been laid up like a precious treasure, and diligently preserved for many ages in God’s sanctuary. The analogy, also, is very perfect; since Christ, in order to rescue us from death, put on our flesh, not, indeed, subject to sin, but representing “the likeness of sinful flesh,” as Paul says. (Romans 8:3.) hence follows, what I have above adverted to, that since “the world by wisdom knew not God,” He was manifested in the foolishness of the cross. (1 Corinthians 1:21.) If, then, we desire to obtain salvation, let us not be ashamed to seek it from the curse of Christ, which was typified in the image of the serpent.

Its lifting up is poorly and incorrectly, in my opinion, explained by some, as foreshadowing the crucifixion, (122) whereas it ought rather to be referred to the preaching of the Gospel: for Moses was commanded to set up the serpent on high, that it might be conspicuous on every side. And the word נס nes, is used both for a standard, and the mast of a ship, or any other high pole: which is in accordance with the prophecy of Isaiah, where he says that Christ should be “for an ensign” to all nations, (Isaiah 11:10) which we know to have been the case, by the spreading of the doctrine of the Gospel through the whole world, with which the look of faith corresponds. For, just as no healing was conveyed from the serpent to any who did not turn their eyes towards it, when set up on high, so the look of faith only causes the death of Christ to bring salvation to us. Although, therefore, God would give relief to their actual distress, it is still unquestionable that He even then admonished all believers that the venomous bites of the devil could only be cured by their directing their minds and senses by faith on Christ.

The brazen serpent is, furthermore, a proof to us how inclined to superstition the human race is, since posterity worshipped it as an idol, until it was reduced to powder by the holy king Hezekiah. (1 Kings 18:4.)

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Calvin, John. "Commentary on Numbers 21:8". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/cal/numbers-21.html. 1840-57.