Summary: God watches over us, and in the process, He disciplines us.
God watches over us, and in the process, He disciplines us.
Here’s the context: The news of Israel’s journey from Egypt to the land of promise was well-known. The details of God’s miraculous deliverance had gone before them, and the rulers of Canaan weren’t about to sit idly by facing an impending invasion; they weren’t going to give in without a fight. A battle ensued, and God’s chosen people fought bravely. The Canaanite pagan society was unspeakably wicked, and God gave Israel victory. The Jews defeated Arad and renamed the place Hormah, meaning "destruction" (vs 3).
God’s victory encouraged the Israelites, but it didn’t take very long for the people to resume their complaining. The difficulty of the journey, through desert terrain, caused them to grow impatient. They were forced to make a broad circuit around Edom. They had come so very near the land of milk and honey, and tasted the sweet wine of victory, but now they were back wandering again. Their frustration resulted in some harsh words against God and Moses. The old complaints resurfaced-that God had led them out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness, and there was nothing to eat but manna. In vs 4 they complain, "We detest this miserable food!" In the hardships of the journey they’d forgotten God’s assurance that they would enter the Promised Land and claim it for their own. They had grown accustomed to God’s provision and took their blessings for granted. What was a miracle-the manna-they saw as monotonous. They hungrily recalled the cuisine of Egypt and were eager for some "real food."
It’s pretty common to complain about things. During a military exercise at Eglin AFB, Florida, as I was standing in line at the mess tent, I heard a disgruntled soldier ahead of me say, "What! Lobster again?!" I’m convinced that some people could live in a suite at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston and still find something to complain about. Eat with them and you’ll get a little whine with your dinner. British author Peter Mayle wrote about rich people in his book Acquired Tastes. He says they complain a lot and are rarely happy. The reason they complain so much is that, with their money, they figure they should get the best of everything…and so they become hyper-critical when the least little thing isn’t perfect. Those of us who aren’t "rolling in dough" don’t sweat the small inconveniences of life. But rich or poor, we all struggle with being satisfied and content with our lives.
If we’re truly committed to the Lord, we will accept His will and go where He leads us. If that means hardship in the wilderness, we face tomorrow with confidence that He will help us through every obstacle. Our lives may be challenging, but they have purpose and direction when we walk with the Lord. By rejecting God’s leadership and provision, the Jews were opposing the very One who was sustaining them.
God’s chastening came swiftly, in the form of venomous snakes. God’s people had rejected the way of life and health, so they encountered suffering and death, the "wages of sin." Does this mean we should never complain to God? The book of Psalms is filled with complaints, and God is throughout Scripture described as full of patience and mercy. He wants us to be honest in our prayers. So what happened here? This was not merely grumbling-it was open rebellion against God and Moses, their appointed leader. God wanted to give them, and us, an example of what can happen if we refuse to be people of praise. God is good to us; He has blessed us; He’s put bread on our tables, but we keep complaining-we’ve been snake-bit by sin.
The people quickly turned from their grumbling. The snakes helped them see the logic of submitting to God and admitting their sin. Moses was pretty fed up with their attitude and tired of their complaining, yet he prayed in their behalf. He was willing to stand in the gap for His people. Moses prayed, and God answered in an unexpected manner. Instead of simply removing the snakes and healing the people who’d been bitten, God instructed Moses to make a serpent of brass and place it on a pole where the people could see it. If those who had been bitten looked at this brass serpent, they would be instantly healed.
In John’s Gospel Jesus explains the necessity of His death: "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life" (3:14). "Lifted up" was a phrase used in Jesus’ day to mean crucifixion. It also refers to our Lord’s ascension to glory. Jesus brought a fuller meaning to this Old Testament event.