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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Numbers 21

 

 

Verse 9

BANE AND ANTIDOTE

‘If a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.’

Numbers 21:9

Faint and weary, and dispirited, the old murmuring breaks out against God and against Moses. And this time God strikes. The punishment took a form, perhaps even more terrible than pestilence or death. As the column toiled along the weary way, out from bush and crevasse, gliding through the grass came the deadly foe, and fastened upon leg and hand. A small thing the bite seemed at first, but as the fiery poison coursed through the veins, then the deadly work began. The stalwart man, who was marching at a comrade’s side, suddenly falls out and is left writhing and choking in torture. And when the camp is pitched, into the tent they come gliding and biting, till a great and terrible cry arises from the sin-stricken, penitent camp. Then, when the chastisement has done its work, God stays His hand. And the serpent of brass, made in the likeness of the living scourge, but transfixed to the pole, is lifted up in the midst of the camp. And as the next day’s sun strikes upon its burnished coils, which burn like fire, it is recognised as a fit symbol of the fiery serpents, whose venomed bite sent the blood coursing like molten fire through the veins. And when any bitten one looked to the serpent of brass in simple faith, behold, he did not die but lived! So the plague was stayed.

I. The poison of sin.—From the day of the first sin in the garden, the idea of evil has been associated with the serpent, and a fitting picture it is. How stealthily it creeps upon us, how unexpectedly it seizes, how little difference it seems to make—we go on our walk as usual, but a fiery poison has entered our lives to work our ruin. Such is sin in the soul—having a very small external wound, it may be, but poisoning the whole being. And it creeps in everywhere. It is lying in wait for us by day at our work and play; it follows us at night. We may lace the flaps of the tent tight, we may peg down the curtains round and round securely, but it glides under and stings us even in our sleep. And ‘if any man say he hath not been bitten, he deceiveth himself, and the truth is not in him.’

II. The remedy.—One has bent over sinful humanity and sucked the poison from the wound. ‘And He shall save His people from their sins.’ To deliver us from this deadly poison He willingly gave up His life, and our only hope is to look to Him in simple faith. A look is enough. This may seem a very trifling thing to bring such a reward. But before the bitten Israelites looked to the serpent, how much had taken place! Instead of rebellion, sin, and disobedience, there was chastened penitence, ‘we have sinned,’ and willingness to obey; and restored trust in God. It seems an easy thing to say, ‘Only believe in Christ,’ but before the soul can cast one believing look at the Crucified, there must first have been the breaking down of the hard heart and the readiness to trust in God. ‘It is a little and easy thing in itself; but it indicates a great and difficult change of mind.’ When a disobedient child is ready to confess his disobedience, the change in his attitude is shown quite as clearly by the simple coming and confessing as if he were to promise to perform some hard task, or undergo some severe penalty. And if any man among the bitten Israelites had not undergone the ‘change of mind,’ if he still cherished his rebellious spirit towards God, that man could not look to God’s symbol of forgiving love, and he died in his misery. Strange as it may seem, there may have been such men. For there are such to-day who will not look to the Saviour, who will cling to their sins, who do not wish to be freed from the bondage and misery of sin if it mean service under Christ.

Illustration

(1) ‘Herbert Spencer in his latest book warns strongly against what he calls the “rebarbarisation” of the world. And Lord Tennyson lends an illustration of what is meant by his lines that make the hunting of one’s fellow men the lordliest life on earth. Christianity believes in education, but it knows that educated devilry and civilised savagery are the very worst kind.

The cross is the only cure for the serpent’s bite. Men must repent and believe and be washed of their sins. Jesus is the only one who can promise, “But as many as receive Him, to them gives He power to become the sons of God.”’

(2) ‘A golf “caddie” in putting his hand into some undergrowth in search of the ball, had it stung by an adder. His companion, a member of a Boys’ Brigade Ambulance Class, at once tied something tight round the wrist to keep the poison from spreading, and sucked the wound clean, thus, in all probability, saving his comrade’s life. A young doctor in a London hospital, bent over the throat of a boy suffering from virulent diphtheria, and knowing well the risk, calmly inserted the tube and sucked out the poisoned virus. He had brilliant prospects before him; but he took the risk. The boy recovered; the brave doctor took the fell disease, sickened, and in a week was dead. He gave his life to save the boy.’

(3) ‘The snatch of poetry in Numbers 21:14-15 is variously translated. Our English version, “What he did on the Red Sea,” etc., agrees with an old Jewish rendering. Some translate it, “Vaheb (Jehovah takes) in storm, and the brooks of Arnon, and the valley of the brooks, which turns to the dwelling of Ar and leans upon the border of Moab.” Others make it, “(We took) Waheb in Suphah and the Arnon water-courses, and the slope of the water-courses that inclineth toward the dwelling of Ar,” etc. The term Vaheb or Waheb might thus be the name of some fortress or strong position of the Amorites.’


Verse 25

LIFE AT ITS NOBLEST

‘Israel took all these cities … Israel possessed his land.’

Numbers 21:25; Numbers 21:35

I. ‘The joys of conquest are the joys of man.’—To face hopeless odds without fear, in quiet reliance upon the Divine word; to act strongly, and conquer to the uttermost; and then, knowing that all—both the occasion, the promise, the courage, and the victory—all are the gifts of glad and fathomless love, to pour out the full heart in glorious praise to the Great Giver, this, surely, is life at its noblest. And all this—except the praise, which, however, appears in Psalms 135:11; Psalms 136:20—we find here in vv. 34 and 35:—‘And the Lord said unto Moses, Fear him not,’ etc.

II. This raises a question of intensest interest: Is there any parallel to this in my life? Is there any deep-rooted evil for me to overcome in this living present, and in fearless reliance upon some omnipotent word of the Lord that has already gone forth against it? What of those weaknesses or evil habits that I know so well and fear so much? Are they not, like Og, the giant king, simply occasions for a Divine over-coming? Has not the Almightyword sounded out against them even as it did against him? Of him it was said:—‘Fear him not; for I have delivered him into thine hand’; and of them it is said:—‘Sin shall not have dominion over you. Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. Be strong, therefore, in the grace which is in Christ Jesus.’ Yes, in Him, we, even we, may know life at its noblest!

Illustration

(1) ‘Thou wilt pitch in Oboth, from which point and onwards there will be no further record of murmuring. This chapter was set to music by the Psalmist, who interleaved the names of these beings and the story of these battles by the mention of the ever-enduring mercy of God (Psalms 106:16-26). So shalt it be with us. The experiences of life may not seem to be joyous but grievous, nevertheless, in the golden afterward they will yield food for everlasting joy, and the uncouth names of sins and foes will be woven into the music of golden lays. Wherefore lift up your heads and rejoice in anticipation of your joy, for your redemption draweth night.’

(2) ‘A beautiful little song is given in this Lesson. The princes were able to use their official rods in putting aside the brushwood which hid the well, and its discovery was greeted by songs. How often does God open springs for us which we do not acknowledge! Let us be more prone to give thanks.’

(3) ‘A friendly message was sent to Sihon the king of the Amorites, to ask him, as Edom, Moab, and Ammon had been asked before, for a free passage through his kingdom. But the friendly message was again refused. Sihon followed up his refusal by advancing against the Israelites, and was defeated in a great battle at Jahaz. This victory gave Israel possession of the whole country from Arnon to Jabbok, including the strong city of Heshbon. The Arnon was henceforth the boundary of Israel and Moab. This triumph was celebrated in a war-song which tells of Israel’s glorious success over the Amorites, of the former defeat of Moab, and of the way in which Israel, avenging their kinsmen, won for themselves the fertile land on the east of the Jordan (Numbers 21:27-31).’


Verse 35

LIFE AT ITS NOBLEST

‘Israel took all these cities … Israel possessed his land.’

Numbers 21:25; Numbers 21:35

I. ‘The joys of conquest are the joys of man.’—To face hopeless odds without fear, in quiet reliance upon the Divine word; to act strongly, and conquer to the uttermost; and then, knowing that all—both the occasion, the promise, the courage, and the victory—all are the gifts of glad and fathomless love, to pour out the full heart in glorious praise to the Great Giver, this, surely, is life at its noblest. And all this—except the praise, which, however, appears in Psalms 135:11; Psalms 136:20—we find here in vv. 34 and 35:—‘And the Lord said unto Moses, Fear him not,’ etc.

II. This raises a question of intensest interest: Is there any parallel to this in my life? Is there any deep-rooted evil for me to overcome in this living present, and in fearless reliance upon some omnipotent word of the Lord that has already gone forth against it? What of those weaknesses or evil habits that I know so well and fear so much? Are they not, like Og, the giant king, simply occasions for a Divine over-coming? Has not the Almightyword sounded out against them even as it did against him? Of him it was said:—‘Fear him not; for I have delivered him into thine hand’; and of them it is said:—‘Sin shall not have dominion over you. Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. Be strong, therefore, in the grace which is in Christ Jesus.’ Yes, in Him, we, even we, may know life at its noblest!

Illustration

(1) ‘Thou wilt pitch in Oboth, from which point and onwards there will be no further record of murmuring. This chapter was set to music by the Psalmist, who interleaved the names of these beings and the story of these battles by the mention of the ever-enduring mercy of God (Psalms 106:16-26). So shalt it be with us. The experiences of life may not seem to be joyous but grievous, nevertheless, in the golden afterward they will yield food for everlasting joy, and the uncouth names of sins and foes will be woven into the music of golden lays. Wherefore lift up your heads and rejoice in anticipation of your joy, for your redemption draweth night.’

(2) ‘A beautiful little song is given in this Lesson. The princes were able to use their official rods in putting aside the brushwood which hid the well, and its discovery was greeted by songs. How often does God open springs for us which we do not acknowledge! Let us be more prone to give thanks.’

(3) ‘A friendly message was sent to Sihon the king of the Amorites, to ask him, as Edom, Moab, and Ammon had been asked before, for a free passage through his kingdom. But the friendly message was again refused. Sihon followed up his refusal by advancing against the Israelites, and was defeated in a great battle at Jahaz. This victory gave Israel possession of the whole country from Arnon to Jabbok, including the strong city of Heshbon. The Arnon was henceforth the boundary of Israel and Moab. This triumph was celebrated in a war-song which tells of Israel’s glorious success over the Amorites, of the former defeat of Moab, and of the way in which Israel, avenging their kinsmen, won for themselves the fertile land on the east of the Jordan (Numbers 21:27-31).’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Numbers 21:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/numbers-21.html. 1876.

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