Numbers 21:4
And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.
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(4) Because of the way.—Better, in (or, on) the way. In addition to all the hardships and dangers of the journey, they were conscious that they were turning their backs upon the land of Canaan, instead of marching by a direct course into it.



Numbers 21:4 - Numbers 21:9

The mutinous discontent of the Israelites had some excuse when they had to wheel round once more and go southwards in consequence of the refusal of passage through Edom. The valley which stretches from the Dead Sea to the head of the eastern arm of the Red Sea, down which they had to plod in order to turn the southern end of the mountains on its east side, and then resume their northern march outside the territory of Edom, is described as a ‘horrible desert.’ Certainly it yielded neither bread nor water. So the faithless pilgrims broke into their only too familiar murmurings, utterly ignoring their thirty-eight years of preservation. ‘There is no bread.’ No; but the manna had fallen day by day. ‘Our soul loatheth this light bread.’ Yes; but it was bread all the same. Thus coarse tastes prefer garlic and onions to Heaven’s food, and complain of being starved while it is provided. ‘There is no water.’ No; but the ‘rock that followed them’ gushed out abundance, and there was no thirst.

Murmuring brought punishment, which was meant for amendment. ‘The Lord sent fiery serpents.’ That statement does not necessarily imply a miracle. Scripture traces natural phenomena directly to God’s will, and often overleaps intervening material links between the cause which is God and the effect which is a physical fact. The neighbourhood of Elath at the head of the gulf is still infested with venomous serpents, ‘marked with fiery red spots,’ from which, or possibly from the inflammation caused by their poison, they are here called ‘fiery.’ God made the serpents, though they were hatched by eggs laid by mothers; He brought Israel to the place; He willed the poisonous stings. If we would bring ordinary events into immediate connection with the Divine hand, and would see in all calamities fatherly chastisement ‘for our profit,’ we should understand life better than we often do.

The swift stroke had fallen without warning or voice to interpret it, but the people knew in their hearts whence and why it had come. Their quick recognition of its source and purpose, and their swift repentance, are to be put to their credit. It is well for us when we interpret for ourselves God’s judgments, and need no Moses to urge us to humble ourselves before Him. Conscious guilt is conscious of unworthiness to approach God, though it dares to speak to offended men. The request for Moses’ intercession witnesses to the instinct of conscience, requiring a mediator,-an instinct which has led to much superstition and been terribly misguided, but which is deeply true, and is met once for all in Jesus Christ, our Advocate before the throne. The request shows that the petitioners were sure of Moses’ forgiveness for their distrust of him, and thus it witnesses to his ‘meekness.’ His pardon was a kind of pledge of God’s. Was the servant likely to be more gracious than the Master? A good man’s readiness to forgive helps bad men to believe in a pardoning God. It reflects some beam of Heaven’s mercy.

Moses had often prayed for the people when they had sinned, and before they had repented. It was not likely that he would be slow to do so when they asked him, for the asking was accompanied with ample confession. The serpents had done their work, and the prayer that the chastisement should cease would be based on the fact that the sin had been forsaken. But the narrative seems to anticipate that, after the prayer had been offered and answered, Israelites would still be bitten. If they were, that confirms the presumption that the sending of the serpents was not miraculous. It also brings the whole facts into line with the standing methods of Providence, for the outward consequences of sin remain to be reaped after the sin has been forsaken; but they change their character and are no longer destructive, but only disciplinary. ‘Serpents’ still ‘bite’ if we have ‘broken down hedges,’ but there is an antidote.

The command to make a brazen or copper serpent, and set it on some conspicuous place, that to look on it might stay the effect of the poison, is remarkable, not only as sanctioning the forming of an image, but as associating healing power with a material object. Two questions must be considered separately,-What did the method of cure say to the men who turned their bloodshot, languid eyes to it? and What does it mean for us, who see it by the light of our Lord’s great words about it? As to the former question, we have not to take into account the Old Testament symbolism which makes the serpent the emblem of Satan or of sin. Serpents had bitten the wounded. Here was one like them, but without poison, hanging harmless on the pole. Surely that would declare that God had rendered innocuous the else fatal creatures. The elevation of the serpent was simply intended to make it visible from afar; but it could not have been set so high as to be seen from all parts of the camp, and we must suppose that the wounded were in many cases carried from the distant parts of the wide-spreading encampment to places whence they could catch a glimpse of it glittering in the sunshine. We are not told that trust in God was an essential part of the look, but that is taken for granted. Why else should a half-dead man lift his heavy eyelids to look? Such a one knew that God had commanded the image to be made, and had promised healing for a look. His gaze was fixed on it, in obedience to the command involved in the promise, and was, in some measure, a manifestation of faith. No doubt the faith was very imperfect, and the desire was only for physical healing; but none the less it had in it the essence of faith. It would have been too hard a requirement for men through whose veins the swift poison was burning its way, and who, at the best, were so little capable of rising above sense, to have asked from them, as the condition of their cure, a trust which had no external symbol to help it. The singularity of the method adopted witnesses to the graciousness of God, who gave their feebleness a thing that they could look at, to aid them in grasping the unseen power which really effected the cure. ‘He that turned himself to it,’ says the Book of Wisdom, ‘was not saved by the thing which he saw, but by Thee, that art the Saviour of all.’

Our Lord has given us the deepest meaning of the brazen serpent. Taught by Him, we are to see in it a type of Himself, the significance of which could not be apprehended till Calvary had given the key. Three distinct points of parallel are suggested by His use of the incident in His conversation with Nicodemus. First, He takes the serpent as an emblem of Himself. Now it is clear that it is so, not in regard to the saving power that dwells in Him, but in regard to His sinless manhood, which was made ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh,’ yet ‘without sin.’ The symbolism which takes the serpent as the material type of sin comes into view now, and is essential to the full comprehension of the typical significance of the incident.

Secondly, Jesus laid stress on the ‘lifting up’ of the serpent. That ‘lifting up’ has two meanings. It primarily refers to the Crucifixion, wherein, just as the death-dealing power was manifestly triumphed over in the elevation of the brazen serpent, the power of sin is exhibited as defeated, as Paul says, ‘triumphing over them in it’ {Colossians 2:14 - Colossians 2:15}. But that lifting up on the Cross draws after it the elevation to the throne, and to that, or, rather, to both considered as inseparably united, our Lord refers when He says,’ I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.’

Thirdly, the condition of healing is paralleled. ‘When he looked unto the serpent of brass, he lived.’ ‘That whosoever believeth may in Him have eternal life.’ From the serpent no healing power flowed; but our eternal life is ‘in Him,’ and from Him it flows into our poisoned, dying nature. The sole condition of receiving into ourselves that new life which is free from all taint of sin, and is mighty enough to arrest the venom that is diffused through every drop of blood, is faith in Jesus lifted on the Cross to slay the sin that is slaying mankind, and raised to the throne to bestow His own immortal and perfect life on all who look to Him. The bitten Israelite might be all but dead. The poison wrought swiftly; but if he from afar lifted his glazing eyeballs to the serpent on the pole, a swifter healing overtook the death that was all but conqueror, and cast it out, and he who was borne half unconscious to the foot of the standard went away a sound man, ‘walking, and leaping, and praising God.’ So it may be with any man, however deeply tainted with sin, if he will trust himself to Jesus, and from ‘the ends of the earth’ ‘look unto’ Him ‘and be saved,’ His power knows no hopeless cases. He can cure all. He will cure our most ingrained sin, and calm the hottest fever of our poisoned blood, if we will let Him. The only thing that we have to do is to gaze, with our hearts in our eyes and faith in our hearts, on Him, as He is lifted on the Cross and the throne. But we must so gaze, or we die, for none but He can cast out the coursing venom. None but He can arrest the swift-footed death that is intertwined with our very natures.Numbers 21:4. By the way of the Red sea — The way which led to the Red sea, which they were under a necessity of taking, that they might compass the land of Edom. But as they had gained an advantage over the king of Arad, why did they not pursue their victory, and now enter Canaan? Because God would not permit it, there being several works yet to be done; other people must be conquered, the Israelites must be further humbled, tried, and purged, Moses must die, and then they shall enter, and that in a more glorious manner, even over Jordan, which shall be miraculously divided to give them passage. The soul of the people was much discouraged — Or, they grew fretful and impatient, as the words import. Having met with so many difficulties and discouragements in their way to Canaan; particularly being now obliged, by the Edomites refusing to give them a passage through their country, to retire back southward, and thence again to turn eastward, and to take a round by the territories of the Moabites; they began to think they should never come to the promised land, and so fell into their old spirit of murmuring against God, and throwing reflections on Moses. They seem to have been the more excited to this by the successful entrance and victorious progress which some of them had made in the borders of Canaan; because they concluded from this that they might speedily have gone in and taken possession of it, and so have saved the tedious travels, and further difficulties, into which Moses had again brought them.21:4-9 The children of Israel were wearied by a long march round the land of Edom. They speak discontentedly of what God had done for them, and distrustfully of what he would do. What will they be pleased with, whom manna will not please? Let not the contempt which some cast on the word of God, make us value it less. It is the bread of life, substantial bread, and will nourish those who by faith feed upon it, to eternal life, whoever may call it light bread. We see the righteous judgment God brought upon them for murmuring. He sent fiery serpents among them, which bit or stung many to death. It is to be feared that they would not have owned the sin, if they had not felt the smart; but they relent under the rod. And God made a wonderful provision for their relief. The Jews themselves say it was not the sight of the brazen serpent that cured; but in looking up to it, they looked up to God as the Lord that healed them. There was much gospel in this. Our Saviour declared, Joh 3:14,15, that as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that whatsoever believeth in him, should not perish. Compare their disease and ours. Sin bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Compare the application of their remedy and ours. They looked and lived, and we, if we believe, shall not perish. It is by faith that we look unto Jesus, Heb 12:2. Whosoever looked, however desperate his case, or feeble his sight, or distant his place, was certainly and perfectly cured. The Lord can relieve us from dangers and distresses, by means which human reason never would have devised. Oh that the venom of the old serpent, inflaming men's passions, and causing them to commit sins which end in their eternal destruction, were as sensibly felt, and the danger as plainly seen, as the Israelites felt pain from the bite of the fiery serpents, and feared the death which followed! Then none would shut their eyes to Christ, or turn from his gospel. Then a crucified Saviour would be so valued, that all things else would be accounted loss for him; then, without delay, and with earnestness and simplicity, all would apply to him in the appointed way, crying, Lord, save us; we perish! Nor would any abuse the freeness of Christ's salvation, while they reckoned the price which it cost him.The direct route to Moab through the valleys of Edom being closed against them Numbers 20:20-21, they were compelled to turn southward. Their course lay down the Arabah; until, a few hours north of Akaba (Ezion-Geber) the Wady Ithm opened to them a gap in the hostile mountains, allowed them to turn to their left, and to march northward toward Moab Deuteronomy 2:3. They were thus for some days (see Numbers 22:1 note) in the Arabah, a mountain plain of loose sand, gravel, and detritus of granite, which though sprinkled with low shrubs, especially near the mouths of the wadys and the courses of the winter-torrents, furnishes extremely little food or water, and is often troubled by sand-storms from the shore of the gulf. Hence, "the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way." 4. they journeyed from mount Hor—On being refused the passage requested, they returned through the Arabah, "the way of the Red Sea," to Elath, at the head of the eastern gulf of the Red Sea, and thence passed up through the mountains to the eastern desert, so as to make the circuit of the land of Edom (Nu 33:41, 42).

the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way—Disappointment on finding themselves so near the confines of the promised land without entering it; vexation at the refusal of a passage through Edom and the absence of any divine interposition in their favor; and above all, the necessity of a retrograde journey by a long and circuitous route through the worst parts of a sandy desert and the dread of being plunged into new and unknown difficulties—all this produced a deep depression of spirits. But it was followed, as usually, by a gross outburst of murmuring at the scarcity of water, and of expressions of disgust at the manna.

By the way of the Red Sea, i.e. which leadeth to the Red Sea, as they must needs do to compass the land of Edom.

Because of the way; by reason of this journey, which was long, and troublesome, and preposterous, (for they were now going towards Egypt,) and unexpected, either because they doubted not but their brethren the Edomites would grant them their reasonable request of passing through their land, which disappointment made it worse; or because the successful entrance and victorious progress which some of them had made in the borders of Canaan, made them think they might have speedily gone in and taken possession of it, and so have saved their tedious travels and further difficulties into which Moses had again brought them. And they journeyed from Mount Hor,.... After the battle with the king of Arad, and the defeat of him:

by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom; which lay by it, and from whence it had the name of the Red sea, Edom signifying red; and by the way of that the Israelites must needs go, to go round that country:

and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way; because it was going back instead of going forward to Canaan's land, and because of the length of the way; it was a round about way they were going; when, could they have been admitted to have passed through the country of Edom, the way would have been short; or had they pursued their victory over the Canaanite, they would have gone directly into the land; and this perhaps was what fretted, vexed, and discouraged them, that they were obliged to go back, and take such a circuit, when they had such an opportunity of entering; and they might be distressed also with the badness and the roughness of the way, the borders of Edom being rocky and craggy: it is in the original text, "their soul or breath was short" (p); they fetched their breath short, being weary and faint with travelling, or through anger, as angry persons do, when in a great passion: so the people of God travelling through the wilderness of this world are often discouraged, because of the difficulties, trials, and troubles they meet with in the way, from sin, Satan, and the world, and are fretful and impatient; but though they are led about and walk in a round about way, and in a rough way, yet in a right way to the city of their habitation, Psalm 107:7.

(p) "et abbreviata est anima", Montanus, Munster, Fagius, Vatablus; "decurtata", Piscator.

And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to {b} compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.

(b) For they were forbidden to destroy it, De 2:5.

4. by the way to the Red Sea] Throughout the whole of the detour no encampments are named until Israel reaches the region of Moab.

the soul of the people was impatient] lit. ‘was short.’ The opposite state is ‘long-suffering’; cf. Proverbs 14:29 (R.V. ‘hasty’ and ‘slow to anger’).

4–9. The bronze serpent. God did not at once take away the plague. Each individual received healing only when he performed an act of faith, by looking at the serpent. An early Jewish writer says that it was not the serpent that brought the Israelites healing, but the fact that they ‘lifted up their eyes and directed their heart towards their heavenly Father.’ This is one of the most familiar and famous of Biblical narratives, owing to our Lord’s reference to it, in John 3:14, as typical of the ‘lifting up’ of the Son of Man. The close connexion between the plague and the instrument of healing is, to the Christian, symbolical of the fact that ‘Him who knew no sin he [God] made to be sin on our behalf’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). It was traditionally believed that the bronze serpent which Moses erected was the same which existed in Hezekiah’s day. He destroyed it because it had long been an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4).Verse 4. - They journeyed from Mount Hor. It appears from comparison of Numbers 33:38 and Numbers 20:29 that their departure was not earlier than the beginning of the sixth month of the fortieth year. This season would be one of the hottest and most trying for marching. By the way of the Red Sea, i.e., down the Arabah, towards Ezion-geber, at the head of the Elanitic Gulf. Septuagint, ὁδὸν ἐπὶ θά. Not far from this place they would reach the end of the Edomitish territory, and turn eastwards and northwards up the Wady el Ithm towards the steppes of Moab. Discouraged. Literally, "shortened" or "straitened," as in Exodus 6:9. Septuagint, ὡλιγοψύχησεν ὁ λαός. Because of the way. The Ambah is a stony, sandy, almost barren plain shut in by mountain walls on either side, and subject to sand-storms. It was not only, however, merely the heat and drought and ruggedness of the route which depressed them, but the fact that they were marching directly away from Canaan, and knew not how they were ever to reach it. Moses executed this command, and Aaron died upon the top of the mountain, according to Numbers 33:37-38, on the first day of the fifth month, in the fortieth year after the exodus from Egypt, at the age of 123 years (which agrees with Exodus 7:7), and was mourned by all Israel for thirty days.
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