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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 21

Smith's Bible CommentarySmith's Commentary

Verses 1-35

Let's turn in our Bibles to Numbers chapter twenty-one.

Now the children of Israel have been in the wilderness for about thirty-nine years and they are now beginning to make their move towards the Promised Land. We're coming down to the end of this long sojourn in the wilderness. Miriam is dead. Aaron is dead. And most of those who came out of Egypt who were twenty-years old at the time they left Egypt are now dead. And as they are moving now towards the land they have, you remember circumvented Edom.

Now they're coming up on the eastern side of the land itself, not coming directly through the southern part of the land of Israel up through Hebron and that area, but they're going clear around. In fact, they went Hebron-I mean they went around Edom and are circling in and coming in above, actually, the area of Galilee, the Golan Heights, up in there. They made a big circle around and they're gonna come into the land from the eastern part from about the Dead Sea, north approximately. In fact, when they make their first initial thrust into the land it will be at Jericho, which is just north of the Dead Sea region.

But they are-they've encircled Edom and now are coming towards the land, and they are dealing then with the Moabites and the Amorites who lived up in that northern area. The southern part was Edom, north of Edom was Moab, north of Moab were the Amorites. And so they are circled clear around to coming in from another direction. Must have been quite a journey with that many people, well over a million and a half people. It surely was an interesting experience.

AND when king Arad the Canaanite, which dwelt in the south, heard that Israel came by the way of the spies: then he fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners. And Israel vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, if you will indeed deliver this people into our hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities. So the LORD hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered up the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their cities: and he called the name of the place Hormah. And they journeyed from mount Hor by way of the Red sea, to compass [or to circle] the land of Edom: and the soul of the people were very discouraged because of the way ( Numbers 21:1-4 ).

It was a hard route; it was a long way around rather than coming directly into the land, and it was discouraging for them because of that long route in circling around Edom. So they were smitten by these Canaanites and they said, "God, you just help us and we'll totally wipe them out" and God helped them and they wiped them out. And now they made this big compass or circling around Edom, not passing through Edom coming up the rift valley by the Dead Sea but passing clear around that thing.

Now the people spake against God, and against Moses, and said, Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there water; and our soul loatheth this light bread ( Numbers 21:5 ).

Now again they are complaining against God. Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? We have no bread, and we have no water and we're sick of this manna, this light bread.

Now as we pointed out this morning, in every circumstance of life there are things you can complain about. I'm sure that if you, if you want to, you can find something to gripe about in any situation that you face. So also in every situation that you face you can find something to be thankful for. And there are people who in every situation are looking for that for which they can gripe. And there are those people that in every situation they are looking for those things for which they can give thanks.

In other words, there are people that are always looking on the good side and there are people that are always looking on the drab side of life; people who are chronically complaining, people who are chronically giving thanks. It becomes a pattern of a person's life. Now it is God's will that your pattern be that of thanksgiving. "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God concerning you in Christ Jesus" ( 1 Thessalonians 5:18 ). And God wants you to live a thankful life; God wants you to appreciate what he has done for you.

Now, it is true that manna became no doubt, a very monotonous thing. It wasn't very flavorable; it was sort of a mild, bland food but yet it was extremely nutritious. All that they needed to sustain them was in it as far as vitamins, minerals and so forth. It was an excellent food. It was angels' food according to psalm-what is it-seventy-two or so. "He fed with angels' food"( Psalms 78:25 ). And yet the people chose to complain instead of give thanks. "Oh God you're so good. You haven't failed. The manna is there every morning. Lord, you've supplied us all the way. You sustained us Lord. You've been so good to us." No. "Oh this stuff, I'm sick of it. Manna, manna, yuck." And people are that way.

And God in judgment, because of their complaining, sent fiery serpents among them. They were all so deadly. And as they would bite the people, the people would go into convulsions and die. And they realized that it was a judgment of God because of their complaining.

They came to Moses, and they said, We have sinned, in that we have spoken against God, and against you ( Numbers 21:7 );

There was a confession of their sin. That's always important. The Bible said, "If you seek to cover your sin you're not gonna prosper. But who so confesses his sin shall be forgiven"( Psalms 32:5 ). You try to hide your guilt, you try to deny your guilt; God can't do anything for you. But if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Now there are sometimes when people confess sins but it isn't really a true confession of their heart. Pharaoh said, "I've sinned against the Lord"( Exodus 10:16 ), but he went back and did the very same thing over again. Here the people said, "We have sinned." They recognized that their complaining was a sin, that God's judgment had come upon them.

"Moses, pray for us. Ask God to help us." And so Moses prayed and instead of God just ridding the snakes out of the camp,

God said to Moses, Now make a brass serpent, put it on a pole: [and set it up in the middle of the camp:] and it shall come to pass, whenever a man is bitten by a snake [as he is dying], if he will look at this brass snake on the pole he'll be healed ( Numbers 21:7-9 ).

So God let there be something that the people can do. In other words, you can live or die; it's your choice. Living is very simple: all you have to do is look at this snake, this brass serpent on this pole and you'll be healed, you'll live. Dying is very simple too; all you have to do is not look and you're gonna die. Someone said, "What must I do to be lost?" Nothing, just keep living like you are doing the things you do and you'll be lost. "What must I do to be saved?" All you have to do is look at Jesus Christ in faith, in trust, believing in Him. Salvation is very simple.

And so, Moses made this brass serpent, put it on the pole and it came to pass that as the people were bitten by these snakes, if they would look upon this brass serpent, they would be healed; they would live.

And thus, God gave an interesting foreshadowing of the cross of Jesus Christ. The serpent is always a symbol for sin because Satan came in the form of a serpent in the Garden of Eden. Brass is always a symbol of judgment. They confessed "we have sinned." The brass serpent on the pole was a symbol that your sin has been judged. "Now, if you'll just look at the brass serpent, the place where your sin was judged, you'll be healed."

Later on in Hezekiah's day the people had made this brass serpent. They kept it, it was an interesting artifact, and they had kept it as they journeyed into the land, and as the judges and kings through all this period they kept this brass serpent. And at the time that Hezekiah was king over Judah the people were worshipping this brass serpent. They had made an idol out of it; they were covering and offering prayers before it, worshipping the brass serpent.

What does it indicate when a person begins to worship an idol? Number one, it indicates that he has lost his consciousness of God's living presence. I am no longer conscience that God is present with me, thus, I am looking for something that will remind me of the presence of God. And so I get some kind of a little reminder, a memento, a some kind of an image or whatever that can remind me of God's presence. But the fact that I need an object shows that I've lost the consciousness of the presence of God.

Number two, it indicates that somehow deep inside I am longing for that which I have lost. I'm longing for a meaningful relationship with God. I'm longing for a meaningful consciousness of God. And thus, I am setting up reminders, things that can bring my attention and my mind to the fact of God's presence. Thus, it is always a sign of spiritual deterioration or degradation.

At the time that Hezekiah became king, he took this brass serpent that Moses had made and he broke the thing in pieces because the people were bowing down, worshiping and praying before it and all. And he broke the thing in pieces and he said, "Nachuwsh, dummies. It's not a god". Nachuwsh means a thing of brass. It's not a god. All it is, is a piece of brass.

You know it's tragic when people begin to worship a building or begin to worship objects. We had a church one time in which we were remodeling the platforms and we decided to remodel the pulpit. I was gonna build a new pulpit. And this lady came up and said, "Brother Smith, oh, you can't replace that pulpit. Oh brother so and so made this and oh, there have been so many anointed sermons. Oh, it would be terrible if you did anything to that pulpit. Oh oh," you know and on and on. And oh, I knew there's gonna be a church split because we wanted to replace the pulpit. Churches split over the dumbest things because people are so dumb. They get attached; they get attached to things because they've lost the consciousness of God's vital presence in their life.

"Oh, oh, I remember a sermon that was preached and oh, it was so powerful and the pastor held onto that pulpit and his, you know, his knuckles were white and the anointing of God was on them and all. Oh, don't get rid of the pulpit." Well, the pulpit was ugly and we were modernizing the whole-well, it was the ugliest platform you ever saw. Just old-fashioned ugly, broken down chairs, and the whole thing was just ugly. So we wanted to modernize the whole thing, got some nice modern chairs. And so I built a new pulpit but I built it right around the old one. Used the old one as a base and I just, you know, put new wood around it and modernized it and all and a new design to it and it was you know, matched the rest of the platform then.

And this woman came to church and just about had apoplexy when she saw the new pulpit. She came storming up to me, eyes flashing, said, "I told you that that pulpit couldn't go" and started-I said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, come here, come here. I wanna show you something." And I took her around and I showed her behind the pulpit here's the old, ugly pulpit. You know, everything was there. It's still the same pulpit; I just built around it. And it sufficed her. It was "Oh, praise the Lord we still got our pulpit" you know. Nachuwsh. Take an ax to it; it's just a thing of wood. There's nothing holy about it. It's just an old, broken down piece of furniture. People get attached to the old. "That's where I accepted Jesus . Oh, oh, oh, you can't do anything to that church you know."

It was interesting when we were in the little sanctuary a block away and we had grown to the place where we were gonna have to move. And so the only thing we could do was put up a big old circus tent. And so that's what we did, put up the circus tent out here. And people were going around here saying, "Oh I hope we don't lose this neat warm feeling when we move into a tent. Oh, that tent. I don't know. I just hope we don't lose this beautiful, beautiful feeling that we have when we move into a tent". After two years in the tent and this church building here was completed they'd say, "Oh, I hope we don't lose this beautiful warm feeling in the tent when we move into a building", as though it were a building or a tent.

The beautiful warm feeling comes from the love of Jesus Christ working in our hearts and in our lives. And we can be meeting out on the grass or down at the beach, anywhere, and that neat, beautiful, warm feeling would be there because the beautiful, neat, warm feeling isn't in the building, it isn't in furniture; it's in the hearts of God's people. And it's sad when people lose that consciousness of God or begin to equate the presence of God to a place, to a building, to an artifact, to a piece of furniture or to a brass serpent or something else.

Hezekiah wisely broke that thing in pieces and said, "Nachuwsh". It's just a thing of brass. It's not a god.

Now if you go to the Saint Ambrose Cathedral in Milan, Italy you can see the glued-together pieces of brass and the people going up and offering their prayers and kissing the glass cover and so forth again. Because according to their story, someone picked up the pieces and now they've got it on display and are using it again. Nachuwsh.

But more important, in the New Testament Jesus tells us the true significance for this brass serpent lifted on a pole. "For when Nicodemus came to him at night and sought the way of salvation, Jesus said, "Nicodemus, there's only one way, man. You've got to be born again". Nicodemus said, "Born again? What do you mean? I'm an old man. I can't go back into my mother's womb and be born a second time. What do you mean be born again?" Jesus said, "Nicodemus, there are two births; one physical, one spiritual. And that which was born of flesh is flesh, that which is born of the spirit is spirit. Don't be uptight because I tell you, you got to be born again."

"But how can these things be?" And Jesus in answer to the question of 'How can a man be born again? How can these things be?' answered Nicodemus and said, "For as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life"( John 3:14-15 ).

That's how a person is born again. By looking to the Lord Jesus Christ as He was lifted up on His cross and see that there, God has judged my sins and Jesus bore the judgment of God for my sins. As the brass serpent was the symbol of sin being judged, it was looking forward to God judging man's sins upon the cross and God laid upon Him the iniquities of us all and He bore the sins of the world and there God judged the sins of the world on the cross of Jesus Christ.

And now you who are dying because of this deadly affliction of sin, all you have to do to live is to look to the cross of Jesus Christ and see that God has judged your sin and believe in Him. So the brass serpent on the pole in the wilderness was looking forward to the judgment of sin upon the cross when Jesus would be lifted up there upon the cross and bear, once and for all, God's judgment for man's iniquities.

And so the children of Israel set forward, and pitched at Oboth ( Numbers 21:10 ).

And then they were now stating this journey on around and it tells the various places where they were camping.

Verse fourteen, and it said,

Wherefore it is said in the book of the wars of the LORD ( Numbers 21:14 ),

Now that's an interesting book. I've never read it. And I suppose it's been lost and we probably won't find it. But there's a missing book, "the book of the wars of the Lord", but did you know that the Lord had wars?


What he did at the Red Sea, the brooks of Arnon [And so forth, and so they came on around]And they went to Beer ( Numbers 21:14 , Numbers 21:16 ):

Now the word "beer" means "well"; b-e-e-r; it's well. Beersheba is a well. Here it is. They just came to Beer the well.

that is the well that the LORD spoke to Moses about, and he said, Gather the people together, and I will give them water. Then Israel sang this song, Spring up, O well ( Numbers 21:16-17 );

"Within my soul." No, they didn't sing that part, but so here's where you got the lyric for that song. "Spring up oh well" and they encouraged the people to sing unto it: sing unto that well.

And the princes dug a well, and the nobles of the people digged it, by the direction of the lawgiver, with their shovels. And from the wilderness they went to Mattanah ( Numbers 21:18 ):

And then onto the top of Mount Pisgah, which, from which they were able to look over the land that God had promised as they were now in the country of Moab.

Now, Israel sent messengers to the king of the Amorites, asking for permission to pass through his land, as they did to Edom. The king of Edom refused, came down to meet them with his army. But because the Edomites were actually relatives to them, they just went away peacefully and went all the way around to Edom.

But they weren't really related to the Amorites and so when the king Sihon of the Amorites came out with his army,

Israel smote him with the edge of the sword, and possessed the land from Arnon to Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon: for the border of the children of Ammon was strong ( Numbers 21:24 ).

So, they took over the area that was being possessed by the Amorites. Now, this is from the area east of the Sea of Galilee, north of Moab and Jabbok comes into the Jordan just south from Galilee. And so that area of the Golan, present day Golan Heights, but not up as far as Syria on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, there was the area where the Amorites dwelled. That is the land that the children of Israel conquered, and later part of the tribes settled in that land. It's great cattle country. And the Reubenites, the tribe of Reuben, were great cattlemen and also were the tribe of Gad. And so half of the tribe of Gad and the tribe of Reuben settled and remained permanently, well, as permanent as the Israelites remained. They remained, though on that eastern side of the Jordan River and settled in that area up in there.

Israel took all the cities and dwelled in all the cities of the Amorites. And some of the major cities, Heshbon, which was one of the major cities. It was actually the capital city of the area of the Amorites. And so they declared their victory and so forth in sort of a song or proverbs.

And so then they turned and they went by the way of Bashan: and the king of Bashan came out to meet them with all of his people. And the LORD said to Moses, Fear him not: for I have delivered him into your hand, and all of his people, and his land; and you'll do to him just like you did to Sihon the king of the Amorites. And so they smote him, and his sons, and the people, and there was none left alive: and they possessed his land ( Numbers 21:33-35 ).

So they're beginning to possess that land there on the northern end of Israel and on the eastern banks of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.


Bibliographical Information
Smith, Charles Ward. "Commentary on Numbers 21". "Smith's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/csc/numbers-21.html. 2014.
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