Numbers 21
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
The circumstances of the Israelites suggest some of the discouragements of Christian pilgrims. These may arise from -

I. THE DIRECTION OF THE WAY. It led away from Canaan; it was apparently a retreat. Our circumstances may seem to be drawing us further and further from God and heaven; but if we are in God's way it must lead right at last. Illustrate from Exodus 13:17, 18, and cf. Psalm 25:4, 5, 10

II. THE LENGTH OF THE WAY. It might have been shorter, through Edom instead of round it; but it would have been a way of war, on which God's blessing would not have rested. The length avoided loss. Our short cuts may be perilous; e.g., David (1 Samuel 27:1), Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:26-30).

III. THE ROUGHNESS OF THE WAY. Among rocky mountain defiles and treacherous foes. Portions of our pilgrimage are among the green pastures of peace; but others over hills of difficulty, intricate paths, and rugged mountain passes, and amidst powers of darkness that tempt us to despair. Illustrate Jeremiah in his trying and unpopular mission (Jeremiah 12:5, 6; Jeremiah 15:10-21).

IV. THE COMPANIONSHIPS OF THE WAY. Some of our comrades are complainers, and may infect us; others laggards, and tempt us to sloth; others apostates, who turn back and bring an evil report of the way beyond us (like Bunyan's Timorous and Mistrust). But God may be our companion to the end of the way (Psalm 48:14; Psalm 73:24).

V. THE PROVISIONS OF THE WAY (verse 5). This a discouragement of their own seeking, and most culpable. Applicable to those who are dissatisfied with the truth provided as spiritual food for the pilgrimage (its quality, or quantity, or the means of imparting it, as though God must be expected to satisfy every intellectual whim). Applicable also to those who distrust the providence and promises of God in regard to temporal supplies. Our only safe course is to "walk in" (Colossians 2:6) Christ, "the Way." - P.

"The soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way."

I. THE ACTUAL REASON FOR DISCOURAGEMENT. Discouragement and trouble of mind because of the difficulties of life is of course very common, but a great deal depends on where the difficulties come from. Here we are plainly told the discouragement arose because of the way.

1. It appears to have been a bad bit of the road in itself. None of the way over which the Israelites had traveled since they left Egypt could be called easy. They had begun with a strange experience, marching through the depths of the sea, and ever since they had wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. For forty years they had been accustomed to wilderness life, but the district through which they were now passing is, by the description of travelers, desolate and repellent in an extraordinary degree. So the course of the Christian, all the way through, is subject to external difficulties and hardships, and the more faithful he is, the more these may abound, add at certain stages they may be so increased and intensified as to become well nigh intolerable. Discouraged by different things at different times, there may come a time to us, as to Israel, when we shall be especially discouraged because of the way.

2. It came as a sort of rebuff after God had given them special encouragement. For forty years they had been under chastisement, a doomed, dying, hopeless generation, but recently God had brought them back to Kadesh, and made the dry, forbidding rock to pour forth plenteously for the thirst of man and beast. Man is easily lifted up by anything that satisfies his senses, and gives him a visible support, and when it subsides he is correspondingly depressed. The desolate district through which the people passed probably looked all the worse because of the hopes which had been excited in them at Meribah.

3. It was particularly vexatious because they had been turned out of a more direct way. They were compassing the land of Edom, because brother Edom, of whom Israel expected kinder things, had closed the way through his land with a drawn sword. Even though the road had been pleasanter in itself, the very fact that it was circuitous was enough to cause some annoyance.

II. THIS ACTUAL REASON WAS NOT SUFFICIENT. It was natural enough, to some extent excusable, but not a reason worthy of the people of God.

1. It pointed to purely external difficulties. It was by no fault of Israel that it found itself in this cheerless and starving place. Canaan was not a land easy to get into, and the Israelites had been shut up to this road, difficult as it was. We dishonour God greatly when we are discouraged by difficulties rising entirely outside of ourselves. The less of help and comfort we can discern with the eyes of sense, the more we should discern those unfailing comforts and resources which come through a childlike dependence upon God. The Israelites wanted a Habakkuk among them to say, "Though the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation."

2. There was a negligent and ungrateful omission to consider reasons for encouragement. Even if the way was hard, it was a mercy there was a way at all. The way through Edom, direct and easy as it looked, might have proved both tedious and perilous in the end. God knows the way of the righteous, even when the righteous himself scarcely knows it. Bad as the way was, it is called the way of the Red Sea, and the very sight of those memorable waters should have brought to mind, and kept in mind, an unparalleled instance of God's guiding and delivering power.

3. The discouragement because of the way prevented other and weightier reasons for discouragement from being felt. The state of the heart within should have caused far more depression and anxiety than the state of the world without. We know the people themselves were in a bad state of heart, for the words of murmuring prove it. Whatever hopes the gushing waters of Meribah had raised were carnal, and found no sympathy with God. There are two states of heart on which we may be sure he looks with approval.

(1) When his people, in spite of the way, surrounded by poverty, sickness, and all the circumstances of a cold, unsympathetic world, are nevertheless courageous, trustful, grateful, cheerful.

(2) When his people, with everything in their circumstances pleasant and attractive, are nevertheless utterly cast down because of the proofs they daily get of the power of inbred sin. To trust God, in spite of the badness of the way, and to distrust and abhor self, in spite of the comforts of the way - be it our care to attain and preserve these states of mind as long as they are needed. Robert Hall has a sermon on verse 4. - Y.

If this narrative was a bare record of facts, it would supply precious lessons respecting sin and salvation; but being one of the typical histories, applied by the Saviour. to himself,... it has in itself "no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory which excelleth. It was a type, not through the discernment of men, but by the preordination of God. Among the analogies the following may be suggested, from which such truths may be selected as will best further the object for which the subject is used in the pulpit.

1. The origin of the evil in the camp and in the world was the same sin.

2. The fiery serpents apt "ministers" (2 Corinthians 11:15) of "the old serpent," and so sufferings and death the natural work of Satan, who "was a murderer from the beginning," and who hath the power of death (Romans 6:23; Hebrews 2:14).

3. The devil could have no power to injure "except it were given him from above." "The Lord sent the serpents "(cf. Isaiah 45:7; Amos 3:6; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Timothy 1:20).

4. The helplessness of the sufferers the same. A new life needed in each case. But neither herbs, nor cordials, nor caustics, nor charms could expel the poison from the blood. And neither reformation, nor tears, nor services, nor ceremonies can avert the consequences of sin.

5. The remedy of Divine appointment. "God sent forth his Son" (Romans 8:32; Galatians 4:4, 5; cf. Wisdom 16:6, 7, 12).

6. In both cases a resemblance between the destroyer and the deliverer. The brazen serpent a deliverer in the likeness of the destroyer; Christ a Saviour in the likeness of the stoner (Romans 8:3). But the serpent was without venom, and Christ without sin.

7. Deliverance was provided not by words, but by deeds. The Son of man, like the serpent, lifted up.

8. In both cases a declaration of God's plan follows its appointment. Moses proclaimed to the camp the heaven-sent remedy, and "we preach Christ crucified."

9. An appropriation of God's offer required: "when he looketh," "whosoever believeth." Salvation limited to those who trust.

10. No obvious connection between the means and the result. The serpent and the cross "foolishness" to the scoffer.

11. Saving faith impossible without "godly sorrow working repentance" (cf. verse 7; Acts 20:21; 1 John 1:9).

12. The offer of salvation made to all, and the effect of faith alike in all. Cf. verse 9 and the world-embracing "whosoever." - P.

Each time the people break into open sin there is something new in the treatment of them. Now God gives the fruition of their desires; they are surfeited with quails, and perish with the delicate morsels in their mouths (chapter 11.). Again he makes as if at one sudden, comprehensive blow he would sweep away the whole nation (Numbers 14:12). Yet again we read of the fifteen thousand who perished in different ways at the gainsaying of Korah (chapter 16). Then there is a complete change of treatment, and though the people murmured bitterly at Meribah, God is gracious to them, and visits Moses and Aaron, in wrath. Thus we advance to consider this present outbreak of sin, which is treated in a novel and very peculiar way, and one very profitable indeed to consider.


1. It was through the serpent The Lord sent the fiery serpents. It is said that the district abounds in serpents which would be well described by the word fiery. But the Israelites were not allowed to consider the serpents as one of the perils of the district, into which they had fallen by some kind of chance. The Lord sent the serpents. Because the people ceased to trust in him, he delivered them to one of the dangers of the way (Deuteronomy 32:24; Job 26:13; Jeremiah 8:17; Amos 9:3).

2. The serpent rather than another mode of destruction was chosen. God in his wrath does not take the first weapon that comes to hand. If destruction, simply and only destruction, had been in view, doubtless there were other deadly creatures in the wilderness which might have served the purpose. But it is not enough for the people to die; the wag in which they die is also significant. Their thoughts are turned back to the very beginning and fountain of human troubles, to Eden before it was lost, and to the serpent who led our first parents into the ways of sin and death. As the serpent had to do with bringing sin into the world, so he is shown as having to do with the punishment of it.

3. The destruction is represented as being in many cases complete. "Much people of Israel died." Probably some of the few aged still surviving and doomed to die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:29) perished thus, confirmed in their rebellious spirit beyond remedy. Many of those bitten by a serpent toss awhile in pain, looking vaguely for a remedy, but, being ignorant of the original cause of their suffering, and not understanding that God has sent the serpent, they do not find the remedy, and then they die.

4. But in other cases the destruction is incomplete. The bite of the serpent, with its effects, sets before us that gnawing consciousness of misery which comes to so many, and which no art of man can conjure away. Why were some bitten and others not? He who can answer that question can answer another - why some can go through life light-hearted, never having the weight of a wasted life on their consciences, never made miserable by anything save physical pain or disappointed selfishness, and happy at once if the pain and disappointment cease; while others so soon have the serpent poisoning their consciousness and filling them with a deep sense of the failure, sadness, and misery of natural human life. There are some who seem to have triple armour against the serpent-bite. Of the bitten ones, many had been no worse in their unbelief than some who remained unbitten. It is part of the mystery of life that it is not the worst man who is obviously in all cases the suffering one. Then of those who were bitten, some went on to death, others sought if there might be some means of deliverance. Many would give themselves up to fatalism and despair. Many do so still. The question for the miserable in conscience is, "Will you go on allowing the misery of the serpent-bite to eat out all that is salvable in you, or wilt you do as some of Israel wisely and promptly did in their sore distress, namely, turn to God? Only he who sent the serpents can take the venom of their bite away.


1. The cry for salvation contained in verse

7. There is a show of repentance here, but we must not make too much of it. The people had talked in the same humble fashion before, saying they had sinned, yet soon showing that they did not understand what sin was (Numbers 14:40); though perhaps the expression in verse 5 should be particularly noted - " the people spake against God." Hitherto their wrath had been vented on the visible Moses and Aaron. It is something that even in their murmurings they at last seem distinctly to recognize God as having a hand in the disposition of their course. And so now they put in the confession, "We have spoken against the Lord." This may have had more to do with the peculiar way in which God treated them than at first appears. Whether their repentance is good for anything will be seen if they bring forth such fruit of repentance as they will presently have the opportunity of manifesting. Note also the connection of the healing with the request of the people. If they had gone on in silent endurance they might all in course of time have died. Their confession of sin told the truth, whether they felt all that truth or not. The serpent-bite was connected with their sin. Observe also their approach to God through a mediator, one whose services they had often proved, yet often slighted, in the past. They come to Moses for a greater service than they have yet any conception of. Thus we are encouraged to make Jesus the Mediator of spiritual salvation and blessing, by considering' how often, while upon earth, he was the Mediator of salvation and blessing in earthly things. The God who is infinite in power and unfailing in love, and who gave through Jesus the lesser blessings to same, waits also to give through Jesus the greater blessings to all.

2. As the destruction was through the serpent, so the salvation also. God sent the fiery serpents, and also the serpent of brass. There was nothing in it to save if Moses had made it as Aaron made the golden calf. It had not the efficacy of some natural balm. A bit of brass it was to begin with, and to a bit of brass in the course of ages it returned (2 Kings 18:4). So Jesus expressly tells us that in all his gradual approach to the cross he was carrying out his Father's will. All the process by which he was prepared to be lifted up was a process appointed by the Father. It was his meat and drink, that which really and truly sustained him, and entered as it were into his very existence, to do his Father's will and finish his work. When the brazen serpent was finished, fixed and lifted on the pole, this act found its antitype in that hour when Jesus said, "It is finished." All was finished then according to the pattern which God himself had indicated in the wilderness.

3. As destruction was through a serpent, salvation also was through a serpent. "He was made sin for us who knew no sin." Jesus was lifted on the cross amid the execration and contempt of well-nigh all Jerusalem. In its esteem he was worse than Barabbas. To judge by the way the people spoke and acted, the consummation of all villanies was gathered up in him. It was a great insult, and so considered in the first days of the gospel, to proclaim him of all persons as Saviour of men. And so when Moses lifted up the brazen serpent it may have been received indignantly by some. "Do you wish to mock us with the sight of our tormentor?" When we look at Jesus in his saving relation to us, we are brought closer than ever to our own sins, and indeed to the sin of the whole world. We see him, the sinless One, under a curse, as having died on the tree, manifestly under a curse, groaning forth as the Father's face passes into the shade, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Forsaken of God, the holy One, forsaken of unfaithful and terror-stricken servants, hated by the world, we may well say that the semblance of the serpent sets him forth.

4. And yet it was the semblance only. By the way men treated him, he appeared to be judged as a destroyer and deceiver, but we know that in himself he was harmless.

5. There is the prominence of the saving object. The serpent was set upon a pole. We may suppose that it was as central and prominent an object as the tabernacle itself. It was to be placed where all could see, for there were many in the camp, and the bitten ones were everywhere around. And what Moses did for the brazen serpent, God himself, in the marvelous arrangements of the gospel, has done for the crucified Jesus. It is not apostles, evangelists, theologians who have pushed forward the doctrine of the cross; Jesus himself put it in the forefront in that very discourse which contains the deepest things of God concerning our salvation (John 3:14). No one saw him rise from the dead; thousands saw him, or had the opportunity of seeing him, on the cross. We can no more keep the cross in obscurity than we can keep the sun from rising.

6. The pure element of faith is brought in. Contrast the mode of God's treatment here with that employed when Aaron with his smoking censer stood between the living and the dead (Numbers 16:47). On that occasion nothing was asked from the people. Aaron with his censer was the means of sparing even the unconscious. The mercy then was the mercy of sparing; now through the serpent it is the mercy of saving. The serpent was of no use to those who did not look. A man may long be spared in unbelief, but in unbelief he cannot possibly be saved. It is a great advance from sparing to saving. Thus the faith required was put in sharp contrast with past unbelief, which had been so sadly conspicuous and ruinous, gaining its last triumph a little while before in the fall of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 20:12). The people were shut up to pure faith. If once in their great pain and peril they began to doubt how a brazen image of a serpent should save, then they were lost. If there had been anything in the image itself to save, there would have been no room for faith to work. If one serpent-bitten person had been healed without looking, that would have proved faith no necessity. But only those who looked were healed; all who looked were healed; and those who refused to look perished. Thus Jesus early began inviting a needy world to look to him with a spirit full of faith and expectation, and the more he seemed to a critical world incapable and presumptuous, the more he asked for faith. "After that, in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).

7. The salvation depends on the disposition of the person to be saved. Man fell with his eyes open and in spite of a solemn commandment and warning. And every man must be saved with his eyes open, turning himself intelligently., wholly, and gratefully towards the Saviour. There is everything to help the stoner if he will only turn. Some there might be in Israel who seemed too far gone even to turn their eyes, but doubtless God recognized the genuine turning of the heart. Though the eyes of sense beheld not the serpent, the eyes of the heart beheld, and' this was enough for healing. It was very helpful to be assured that there was one mode of healing, and only one, for only one was needed. It is only while we are cleaving to our sins that we find distraction and perplexity. There was distraction, anxiety, and fear in abundance as long as the Israelite lived in momentary terror of the fatal bite; but with the lifted serpent there came not only healing, but composure. God in sending his Son has not distracted us by a complication of possible modes of salvation. - Y.

The lifted serpent and the spirit of faith excited among the people produce not only the immediate and direct effect of healing; certain other encouraging effects are not obscurely indicated in the remainder of the chapter. The events recorded must have extended over some considerable time, and they took the Israelites into very trying circumstances, but there is not a word of failure, murmuring, or Divine displeasure. The narrative is all the other way, and in this surely there must be some typical significance. Looking to the lifted serpent made a great difference. All things had become new; there was alacrity, success, gladness, hitherto lacking - a spirit and conduct altogether different. So Paul, speaking of those who are justified by faith, and have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, goes on to indicate for them a course of satisfaction and triumph, which is in things spiritual what the course of Israel, as recorded in the remainder of this chapter, was in things typical and temporal (Romans 5).

I. THEY ADVANCE UP TO A CERTAIN POINT WITHOUT HINDRANCE OF ANY SORT. We hear nothing more of this difficult and depressing way which had troubled them so much. Nothing is spoken of as arresting their progress till they come to the top of Pisgah. God takes them right onward to the place where afterward he showed Moses the promised land, and the hindrance which comes there is from outside themselves. It is not the lusting and murmuring of the people that come in the way, nor is it a craven fear of the enemy, nor the ambition and envy of a Korah. It is the enemy himself who comes in the way, and of course he must be expected, and may be amply prepared for.

II. DURING THE ADVANCE THERE WAS MUCH SATISFACTION AND JOY. It was a negative blessing, and much to be thankful for, to have no murmurings and discords. It was a positive blessing, and even more to be thankful for, to take part in such a scene as that at Beer. How different from Marah, Rephidim, and Meribah, where God's mercy came amid complainings from Meribah especially, where the mercy was accompanied with judgments on the leaders of the people. Here, unsolicited, God gives water; he makes the princes and nobles of the people his fellow-workers; and, above all, the voices so long used in murmuring now sounded forth the sweet song of praise. The Lord indeed put a new song in their mouth. There had been a sad want of music before. There had been loud rejoicings indeed at the Red Sea, but that was a long while ago. It was something new for the people to sing as they did here. Where there is saving faith in the heart, joy surely follows, and praise springs to the lip.

III. ISRAEL MAKES A COMPLETE CONQUEST OF THE FIRST ENEMY HE MEETS. Israel did not want Sihon to be an enemy. He offered to go through his land, as through Edom, a harmless and speedy traveler. If the world will block the way of the Church, it must suffer the inevitable consequence. Sihon, emboldened doubtless by the knowledge of Israel's turning away from Edom, presumed that he would prove an easy prey. But Sihon neither knew why Israel turned away nor how strong Israel now was. The people were no longer discouraged because of the way, though they were contending not against the adversities of nature, but against the united forces of Sihon struggling for the very existence of their land.

IV. THERE IS AN OCCUPATION OF THE ENEMY'S TERRITORY (verses 25, 31). "Israel dwelt in the land of the Amorites." There was thus an earnest of the rest and possession of Canaan, a foretaste of city and settled life that must have been very inspiring to people so long wandering, and having no dwelling more substantial than the tent.

V. THERE IS CONTINUED VICTORY. The second hindrance disappears after the first. Og, king of Bashan, last of the giants (Deuteronomy 3:11), fared no better for all his strength than Sihon. It was not some peculiar weakness of Sihon that overthrew him. All enemies of God, however different in resource they may appear when they measure themselves among themselves, are alike to those who march in the strength of God. The power by which the Christian conquers one foe will enable him to conquer all. And yet because Og did look more formidable than Sihon, God gave his people special encouragement in meeting him (verse 34). God remembers that even the most faithful and ardent of his people cannot get entirely above the deceitfulness of outward appearances.

VI. THERE IS GREAT ENERGY IN DESTROYING WHAT IS EVIL. Israel asks and is refused a way through the land of brother Edom, and then quietly turns aside to seek another way. By and by he asks Sihon for a peaceful way through his land, and is again refused, whereupon he conquers and occupies the land. But Og did not wait to be asked, perhaps would not have been asked if he had waited. It was a case of presumptuous opposition m spite of the warning fall of Sihon. And what made Og's opposition especially evil, looked at typically, was that he interposed the last barrier before reaching Jordan. Having conquered him, Israel was free to go fight on and pitch "in the plains of Moab, on this side Jordan, by Jericho." Og, therefore, is the type of evil fighting desperately in its last stronghold. And similarly the destroying energy of Israel seems to show how utterly evil will be smitten by the believer, when he meets it even at the verge of Jordan. Thus we have a cheering record of unbroken progress from the time the people looked to the lifted serpent to the time when they entered on the plains of Moab. - Y.

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