Summary: Christians easily slip into venerating the "things" God gives to bless us. Hezekiah, as he ascended to the throne, destroyed the bronze serpent because the people had lapsed into idolatry without realising what they were doing.
WORSHIPPING THE SNAKE
In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).
Few issues stir our emotions more deeply than those that appear threatening to beloved institutions. Our church, the congregation with which we worship, is dear to us, and we react instinctively to any threat, real or perceived. The building in which we meet is more than simply wood and stone; it represents dreams, hopes and was purchased with our sweat and blood. The denomination to which we belong, the seminaries or schools we support as a church, the missionary organisations to which we send our moneys, all alike are defended against any slight.
Tragically, our defence of institutions and buildings can lead us into idolatry. Though the idolatry “feels” good, it is nonetheless opposed to righteousness and in conflict to the will of God. In order to understand this subtle insinuation of the tendency to idolatry, I invite you to consider an incident that occurred early in the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah. The account of the early years of his reign is provided in the historical book of 2 KINGS. Among his initial acts was removal of an idol—an idol that God commanded the people to make. Join me in learning from the Word of God.
THE CURSE OF THE LURE — In order to understand the incident that is recorded briefly in our text, it will be necessary to review how the bronze serpent came to be. Though this review is undoubtedly a mere refresher for most of you, some may not be aware of the particular aspect of Israel’s history when God commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent on a staff.
The specific account is provided in NUMBERS 21:4-9. The people of Israel set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
As they wandered in the desert, despite making progress toward the land God had promised to give them, the people became impatient. This is a common failing of the people of God. They plan for a particular outcome, and because God does not move according to their plans, they become impatient. Almost inevitably, when the people of God become impatient, they begin to grumble. In the case of Israel, they began to speak against God and against Moses.
Take careful note that complaining against Moses was equated to complaining against God. No one actually came out and said, “God is unfair! Boo, God!” However, complaints against Moses were a tacit complaint against God who appointed him. Whenever complaining is tolerated among the people of God, it tends to contaminate the entire community. Complaints, however, expose those complaining to divine judgement. Either the people of God must police themselves, or God will correct them.
Israel, as is true for many Christians in this day, was characterised by complaints. The people complained in the hearing of he Lord about their misfortune, and when the Lord heard it, His anger was kindled [NUMBERS 11:1]. Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, and their complaint was that he had married the wrong woman [NUMBERS 12:1]. Actually, they were angry because they considered that their thoughts about what would please God were as good as Moses’ thoughts [NUMBERS 12:2]!