THE CASE OF THE VICIOUS VIPERS | Numbers 21:1-9
The events in this passage occur very near the end of Israel’s 40 year journey through the wilderness. God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt 40 years earlier. It took them 2 years to reach the Jordan River. During that time, the Lord gave them His Law, and taught them about worshiping Him. When they arrived at Jordan, they refused to cross over the river into the Promised Land. Because of their lack of faith and rebellion against God, the Lord sentenced the entire nation to wander in the wilderness until every member of that rebellious generation, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua, died. It took 38 years for them all the die.
During that 38 year period, God was faithful to walk with Israel, to feed them with Manna every day, to lead them from place to place, and to protect them from their enemies. God had been faithful to His people.
The Israelites had grown sick and tired of wandering through the wilderness. They were tired of God’s plan. They were tired of the Manna. They were tired of their leader Moses. They were just sick and tired of everything.
In this text, we are told that “they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom,” v. 4. The Israelites were forced to go this way because the Edomites would not grant them permission to cross their land. This forced Israel to walk through a terribly harsh desert area. It was mountainous, rough, and desolate. The people didn’t like it. Verse 4 says “the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way.” The word “discouraged,” had the idea of something “being shortened.” Their tempers are short, they are frustrated, and they are out of patience with the whole process of getting to Canaan.
Their frustration over the path they were being forced to walk, brought to the surface other complaints they had in their hearts. In verse 5 they voice several complaints.
They complain that God and Moses brought them out of Egypt just to have them die in the wilderness.
They complain about the lack of food.
They complain about the lack of water.
They complain about the Manna God was sending them every day. (Manna, if you remember, was a miracle meal. It fell on their camp at night. It was plentiful. It was free. It was tasty. It was nutritious. It was a gracious gift from God to feed His hungry people.)
But, despite God’s grace in delivering them from Egypt, despite His generosity in feeding them, and despite His guidance in leading them, they began to murmur and complain. They complained about the leader God gave, and they also lodged their complaint against the Lord.
In response to their complaints, God sent judgment upon Israel in the form of “fiery serpents.” Yet, along with the punishment came the pardon, and this is the magnificent truth that I want you to see today.
This passage is a harsh look at the consequences of sin, but it also illustrates the love and grace of God for the lost. This passage, though ancient, is a vivid illustration of what Jesus did for sinners on the cross.
For Israel this situation quickly degenerated into a hopeless situation. They were being bitten by vicious vipers and many people were dying. There was no treatment for the snake bites. There was no escape from the snakes. They were trapped in hopeless circumstances from which they could not escape.
There is hope for the hopeless.
V. 4-5 ISRAEL’S SIN
In this event Israel was guilty of several terrible sins against God.
They Rejected God’s Person – Verse 5 says, “And the people spake against God.” Because they did this, the Lord judged them harshly. Don’t get the idea here that God is a little too sensitive. Don’t think for a moment that God is trigger happy, and just waiting to judge the guilty too quickly and too harshly. God does not wear his feelings on his shoulders.
One thing the people of Israel knew how to do, and knew how to do well, was gripe and complain. That is about all they had done for thirty-eight years. Just listen to the record of their wretched whining found just in the book of Numbers:
“And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD,” Num. 11:1a.
“And all the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron: and the whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would God we had died in this wilderness,” Num. 14:2!
“But on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the LORD,” Num. 16:41.
“And the children of Israel spake unto Moses, saying, Behold, we die, we perish, we all perish,” Num. 17:12.
Up till now Israel had been guilty of speaking against their leaders. In this passage we are told they “spake against God.” Instead of talking about other people, they now turn their anger toward their God.
Can you imagine the audacity and the arrogance it took for these puny humans to speak against God? Before God chose them, and before God saved them by His grace, they were nobodies. They were nothing but common slaves in the land of Egypt. Now, they dare to speak against God.
They Rejected God’s Promise – Here is what they said to God, “Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” God had promised the nation of Israel that he would bring them into the Promised Land. They had His word on it. Yet, they looked God straight in the eye and said impudently, arrogantly, blasphemously, “We don’t believe You.” In effect, they called God a liar.
You remember this: every time you doubt the Word of God, you discredit the worth of God. Remember what Paul said? He said, “Let God be true; but every man a liar,” Rom. 3:4.
They Rejected God’s Provision – To add insult to injury, they said, “for there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread.” God provided them with bread every day. When they needed water, He gave it to them. They lied, and they did not appreciate the things they had received from the hand of the Lord.
Two words in this verse are worth noting.
The word “loatheth,” means “to be disgusted by.” God graciously gave them the Manna from Heaven every day. He used it to keep them fed and healthy. Yet, they looked at God’s gracious provision and they said “that stuff is disgusting.”
The word “light” means “worthless”. They said that the Manna was “worthless!” Manna was far from worthless. While they were in the wilderness this bread was not only their strength, their sustenance, it was their very salvation. Without it, they would have starved to death! Yet, the one thing that gave them life, they renounced.
They Rejected God’s Prophet – Not only did they speak against God, they spoke “against Moses.” If a man rejects God, he’ll reject God’s man. If you fall out with God, you will eventually fall out with the man of God. If you are going to live for God, the world is going to turn on you; people are going to reject you.
If you love Jesus, and you live for Jesus, you will be loathed by the world. The Lord Jesus Himself said, “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you,” John 15:18-19.
Paul adds this truth: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution,” 2 Tim. 3:12.
V. 6 ISRAEL’S SENTENCE
Because of Israel’s rebellion, God sends judgment upon them in the form of “fiery serpents.”
The Serpents Were Deserved – The serpent, as you know, is a symbol of sin. Satan disguised himself as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Throughout the Bible the serpent is a symbol of sin, evil, rebellion against God. It is fitting that the Lord should send serpents among the people.
Sin is like a serpent. Sin holds tremendous power over us. If sin is allowed to sink its fangs in your life, it will coil itself around you until it has choked the life right out of you. It will not stop until it has destroyed you and everything you love.
The Serpents Were Dreadful – They are called fiery serpents. I believe they were called fiery because of the intense pain that they could inflict on their victims. These were most likely a type of viper found in the Middle East. The bite of these vipers is said to be immensely painful.
Research on that type of viper reveals the following symptoms from the viper’s bite:
- Injection of venom initiates a fiery pain at the site of the bite.
- Swelling begins right away.
- Discoloration at the sight of the bite varies from white to flaming reds, purples, and dark blues.
- Victims would experience nausea, vomiting, excruciating stomach pains and cramping.
- Victims begin to experience extreme thirst
- The liver and kidneys are damaged from filtering toxins resulting in extreme tenderness in the lower abdominal area, and many times diarrhea sets in.
- Hemorrhaging occurs in the form of nosebleeds, or bleeding from the mouth or the eyes.
- The viper’s venom is a hemotoxin, it destroys blood cells and causing bleeding where capillaries are close to the surface. A person usually bleeds to death internally.
- Quick deaths from a viper’s bite are unusual. Generally the suffering is prolonged for one or two days.
What is the point? The point is, God is trying to teach us here that suffering follows sin just as surely as night follows day.
The Serpents Were Deadly – We are told that “much people of Israel died.” But that’s just like sin isn’t it? Sin thrills, Heb. 11:25b, then sin kills. The Bible says, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” Eze. 18:20. It also says, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death,” James 1:14-15. And, “For the wages of sin is death…,” Rom. 6:23a.
Listen again to verse 6, “And many of the people of Israel died.” Now that’s putting it mildly. People are dropping like flies, and dying all over the camp of Israel.
Keep in mind that we are talking about two to four million people in a twelve square mile area. Poisonous serpents are biting them, and they are getting sick and dying.
There was no hospital, and even if there had been, it wouldn’t have been big enough to treat all those who were sick.
There are no doctors, and even if there were, there wouldn’t be enough for all the patients.
There is no anti-venom and no other medicines, and even if there were, there would not be enough to go around.
This is a desperate situation. People are dying everywhere and there seems to be no cure available and there is no help in sight.
What a tragic picture this paints of the lost sinner and his fallen condition. Left to himself, the lost sinner is in a hopeless, helpless condition. He cannot change his situation. He cannot save himself from the poison of sin that flows through his veins.
V. 7 ISRAEL’S SORROW
When you have been bitten by a deadly snake, there are only two things you can do: You can sit and die, or you can get up and do something about it. The Israelites chose to do something about the situation. They took three steps that every person has to take if he is going to be cured of the snake bite of sin, and escape the fiery judgment of hell.
There Was Conviction – “Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned.’” No matter what else you do, until you get to that point in your life where you are willing to say, “I have sinned,” you will never be saved.
There Was Confession – The people went on to say, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you.” True conviction is always followed by full confession.
There Was Contrition – The people went on to say, “Pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us. So Moses prayed for the people.” The final step is when you realize that your only hope is God.
V. 8-9 ISRAEL’S SALVATION
Incredibly the cure for this serpent problem is not a pill or a potion. The solution is a brass serpent raised up on a pole. There are some precious truths I want you to see in that brass serpent.
There Is A Picture Of Guilt – The serpent symbolizes sin. “Brass,” in the Bible, is a symbol of “judgment.” Being lifted up on a pole pictures a curse, for the Bible says, “Cursed is everyone who hangeth upon a tree,” Gal. 3:13.
Now do you see anything strange here? The cure for the serpent problem took the form of what caused the problem to begin with. It was a serpent that bit them, but it was a serpent that healed them!
“For He hath made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him,” 2 Cor. 5:21.
There Is The Provision Of God – Who came up with a plan like this in the first place? Verse 8 says, “Then the Lord said to Moses.” The plan of salvation is God’s idea, and God’s idea about salvation has never changed. The way people were saved here in the Old Testament is exactly the way people are saved in the New Testament. And, it’s the way people are still saved today.
There Is The Power Of Grace – I want you to see something about this wonderful salvation.
It Was Infallible – Everyone who looked, lived. They didn’t just feel better, they got well. In the Old Testament the Bible says, “look and live.” In the New Testament the Bible says, “believe and be saved.” (John 3:16; Acts 16:31)
It Was Individual – Everyone had to look for themselves. Nobody could look for another person. If you were bitten and wanted to be healed, you had to look for yourself. Anybody could be healed, but not everybody was healed, because not everybody looked.
It Was Instantaneous – The people who looked at that serpent did not have to wait, pray, or pay for this salvation. The moment you looked was the minute you lived.
It Was Invaluable – The healing God provided through that serpent was free, readily available, sufficient, and it would work for anyone. And thus it is with Jesus Christ!