Before the Israelites began their march around the country of Edom, the king of Arad – a Canaanite, who inhabited this southern region – attacked them in the wilderness and took some of them prisoners. The hands of wicked people are often lifted up against the Lord’s children; for since they are not of this world, the world hates them. This trial that the Israelites faced was meant to lead them to look more thoroughly to their God, Who utterly delivered these Canaanites and their cities into their hands.
The people of Israel became wearied by their long march around the land of Edom; and they begin to speak discontentedly of what God had done for them, and distrustfully of what He would do. And so we see the righteous judgment that He brought upon them for this murmuring; He sent fiery serpents among them, which bit or stung many of them to death. But when they were under the rod, they did repent and pray for mercy; and He made a wonderful provision for their relief. He directed Moses to make a brass serpent and put it on a pole; and whenever an Israelite was bitten by one of these serpents, he only had to look upon that brass serpent on the pole, and he would live!
There was much Gospel in this brass serpent! In John 3:14-15, our Savior Himself declared that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, the Son of man must also be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him will never perish. Let us compare the Israelites’ disease with our own. Does not sin bite us like a serpent, and sting us like an adder? And let us also compare the application of their remedy and ours. They looked and lived; any Israelite who simply looked at the brass serpent – no matter how desperate his case, or how feeble his sight, or how distant his location – was certainly and perfectly cured. And similarly, if we only look to Jesus, we shall not perish! It is by faith that we look unto Him and find salvation (Isa. 45:22; Heb. 12:2). The venom of the old serpent, the devil, inflames people’s passions and causes them to commit sins which end in their eternal destruction. O that people would truly feel his poison and see their danger; for then they would not shut their eyes to Christ, or turn away from His Gospel! The crucified Savior would then be so valued, that all other things would be counted loss in order to gain Him! They would all come to Him without delay, with earnestness and simplicity, in the appointed way; and they would cry out, “Lord, save us; we perish!” Nor would they abuse the freeness of Christ’s salvation, for they would realize the great price which it cost Him.
After the incident of the fiery serpents, we read of the journeys of the children of Israel as they were being brought along by the Lord to the plains of Moab – across the Jordan River from Jericho (chapter 22:1). The end of their pilgrimage was near! It is worth noting that when the people were camping at Beer, God blessed them with a supply of water (verses 16-18); and they received their blessing of water with joy and thankfulness, which made the mercy doubly sweet. With joy, we must draw water out of the wells of salvation (Isa. 12:3). Just as the brass serpent was a picture of Christ, Who was lifted up for our cure from sin; so also, this well was a picture of the Holy Spirit, Who is poured forth for our comfort – and from Whom, rivers of living water flow to us (John 7:38-39).
This chapter also details how King Sihon of the Amorites went out with his forces against Israel. He went outside of his own borders, without provocation; and thus he ran headlong into his own ruin. The enemies of God’s people often perish by the counsels that they think they have been most wise to follow. And then King Og of Bashan – even though the fate of his neighbors ought to have been a warning that it was in his best interest to make peace with Israel – made war with them also, which proved to be his own destruction as well. Wicked persons do their utmost to secure themselves and their possessions against the judgments of God, but their efforts are all in vain. In this case, the lands that were possessed by Sihon and Og later became the place where several of the tribes of Israel were given their inheritance when the Promised Land was divided up.
The Lord gave Israel success in these two battles while Moses was still with them, so that he might see the beginning of the glorious work of the conquest of the Promised Land – even though he would not live to see it finished. These victories were like the day of small beginnings, yet they were a promise of greater things to come. As we travel through the wilderness of this world, we must always prepare for fresh conflicts and enemies. We must make no peace nor truce with the powers of darkness, nor even parley with them; we must not expect so much as a brief pause in our battle. But by trusting in God and obeying His commands, we shall be more than conquerors over every enemy! These victories of Israel over the Amorites and the Bashanites were only foretastes of the spiritual triumphs that have been – and will continue to be – spiritually accomplished for Christ’s redeemed people. Indeed, “his mercy endureth for ever!” (Ps. 136:16-20)
Lord Jesus, may our souls gaze upon You alone for grace and healing amidst all the diseases of sin, and all the venomous wounds of Satan, that great serpent. May we look unto You for our salvation, for You are plainly lifted up to our eyes on the pole of the everlasting Gospel. Amen.
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illustration by Adolf Hult, 1919