Numbers 21:8
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.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(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 nehashimserpents—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.

Numbers 21:8-9. 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 thoroughly 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. He lived — He was delivered from death, and cured of his disease.

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.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. 7-9. the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned—The severity of the scourge and the appalling extent of mortality brought them to a sense of sin, and through the intercessions of Moses, which they implored, they were miraculously healed. He was directed to make the figure of a serpent in brass, to be elevated on a pole or standard, that it might be seen at the extremities of the camp and that every bitten Israelite who looked to it might be healed. This peculiar method of cure was designed, in the first instance, to show that it was the efficacy of God's power and grace, not the effect of nature or art, and also that it might be a type of the power of faith in Christ to heal all who look to Him because of their sins (Joh 3:14, 15; see also on [86]2Ki 18:4). 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.

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.

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.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
8. a fiery serpent] Here it is a single substantive, the second of the two in Numbers 21:6.

set it upon a pole] The rendering of the A.V. may here be retained.

Verse 8. - Make thee a fiery serpent. A saraph. The Septuagint, not understanding the meaning of saraph, has simply ὄφιν (cf. John 3:14). Set it upon a pole. גֵם Septuagint σήμειον. Vulgate, signum. The same word is better translated "ensign" in such passages as Isaiah 11:10; "banner" in such as Psalm 60:4; "standard" in such as Jeremiah 51:27. The "pole" may have been the tallest and most conspicuous of those military standards which were planted (probably on some elevation) as rallying points for the various camps; or it may have been one loftier still, made for the occasion. Numbers 21:8At the command of God, Moses made a brazen serpent, and put it upon a standard.

(Note: For the different views held by early writers concerning the brazen serpent, see Buxtorf, historia serp. aen., in his Exercitt. pp. 458ff.; Deyling, observatt. ss. ii. obs. 15, pp. 156ff.; Vitringa, observ. Songs 1, pp. 403ff.; Jo. Marck, Scripturariae Exercitt. exerc. 8, pp. 465ff.; Iluth, Serpens exaltatus non contritoris sed conterendi imago, Erl. 1758; Gottfr. Menken on the brazen serpent; Sack, Apologetick, 2 Ausg. pp. 355ff. Hoffmann, Weissagung u. Erfllung, ii. pp. 142, 143; Kurtz, History of the Old Covenant, iii. 345ff.; and the commentators on John 3:14 and John 3:15.)

Whoever then of the persons bitten by the poisonous serpents looked at the brazen serpent with faith in the promise of God, lived, i.e., recovered from the serpent's bite. The serpent was to be made of brass or copper, because the colour of this metal, when the sun was shining upon it, was most like the appearance of the fiery serpents; and thus the symbol would be more like the thing itself.

Even in the book of Wis. (Numbers 16:6-7), the brazen serpent is called "a symbol of salvation; for he that turned himself toward it was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by Thee, that art the Saviour of all." It was not merely intended, however, as Ewald supposes (Gesch. ii. p. 228), as a "sign that just as this serpent hung suspended in the air, bound and rendered harmless by the command of Jehovah, so every one who looked at this with faith in the redeeming power of Jehovah, was secured against the evil, - a figurative sign, therefore, like that of St. George and the Dragon among ourselves;" for, according to this, there would be no internal causal link between the fiery serpents and the brazen image of a serpent. It was rather intended as a figurative representation of the poisonous serpents, rendered harmless by the mercy of God. For God did not cause a real serpent to be taken, but the image of a serpent, in which the fiery serpent was stiffened, as it were, into dead brass, as a sign that the deadly poison of the fiery serpents was overcome in this brazen serpent. This is not to be regarded as a symbol of the divine healing power; nor is the selection of such a symbol to be deduced and explained, as it is by Winer, Kurtz, Knobel, and others, from the symbolical view that was common to all the heathen religions of antiquity, that the serpent was a beneficent and health-bringing power, which led to its being exalted into a symbol of the healing power, and a representation of the gods of healing. This heathen view is not only foreign to the Old Testament, and without any foundation in the fact that, in the time of Hezekiah, the people paid a superstitious worship to the brazen serpent erected by Moses (2 Kings 18:4); but it is irreconcilably opposed to the biblical view of the serpent, as the representative of evil, which was founded upon Genesis 3:15, and is only traceable to the magical art of serpent-charming, which the Old Testament abhorred as an idolatrous abomination. To this we may add, that the thought which lies at the foundation of this explanation, viz., that poison is to be cured by poison, has no support in Hosea 13:4, but is altogether foreign to the Scriptures. God punishes sin, it is true, by sin; but He neither cures sin by sin, nor death by death. On the contrary, to conquer sin it was necessary that the Redeemer should be without sin; and to take away its power from death, it was requisite that Christ, the Prince of life, who had life in Himself, should rise again from death and the grave (John 5:26; John 11:25; Acts 3:15; 2 Timothy 1:10).

The brazen serpent became a symbol of salvation on the three grounds which Luther pointed out. In the first place, the serpent which Moses was to make by the command of God was to be of brass or copper, that is to say, of a reddish colour, and (although without poison) altogether like the persons who were red and burning with heat because of the bite of the fiery serpents. In the second place, the brazen serpent was to be set up upon a pole for a sign. And in the third place, those who desired to recover from the fiery serpent's bite and live, were to look at the brazen serpent upon the pole, otherwise they could not recover or live (Luther's Sermon on John 3:1-15). It was in these three points, as Luther has also clearly shown, that the typical character of this symbol lay, to which Christ referred in His conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:14). The brazen serpent had the form of a real serpent, but was "without poison, and altogether harmless." So God sent His Son in the form of sinful flesh, and yet without sin (Romans 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 2:22-24). - 2. In the lifting up of the serpent as a standard. This was a δειγματίζειν ἐν παρρησίᾳ, a ́ (a "showing openly," or "triumphing"), a triumphal exhibition of the poisonous serpents as put to death in the brazen image, just as the lifting up of Christ upon the cross was a public triumph over the evil principalities and powers below the sky (Colossians 2:14-15). - 3. In the cure effected through looking at the image of the serpent. Just as the Israelites had to turn their eyes to the brazen serpent in believing obedience to the word of the Lord, in order to be cured of the bite of the poisonous serpents, so much we look with faith at the Son of man lifted up upon the cross, if we would be delivered from the bite of the old serpent, from sin, death, the devil, and hell. "Christ is the antitype of the serpent, inasmuch as He took upon Himself the most pernicious of all pernicious potencies, viz., sin, and made a vicarious atonement for it" (Hengstenberg on John 3:14). The brazen image of the serpent was taken by the Israelites to Canaan, and preserved till the time of Hezekiah, who had it broken in pieces, because the idolatrous people had presented incense-offerings to this holy relic (2 Kings 18:4).

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