21 The Fiery Serpents

<< Numbers 21: The People Bitten by Fiery Serpents >>
and Healed by the Brazen Serpent

And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived. Numbers xxi. 6-9.

THE serpent forms an object of frequent mention and interest in the Word of God, from Genesis to Revelation. The manner in which it is introduced in the early part of Divine Revelation, concerning the fall of man, is well known. It occurs also in the Book of Revelation. There we read of the devil and Satan, the old serpent, which deceiveth the whole world. There are eleven different kinds of serpents mentioned in the Word, all having their distinct significations, corresponding to the qualities and habits of the serpents named.

In all ancient writings almost, and in the hieroglyphics of Egypt, the serpent is very often used, and evidently with a symbolic meaning.

In nature, we know, serpents are very numerous, and of many kinds. There are those which produce their young alive, represented by our viper, and these are generally poisonous; and those which bring forth eggs, which are many of them harmless. There are small serpents, and large serpents, water serpents, and land serpents, tree serpents, and grass serpents, some that burrow in the sand, and some that fly in the air. There are serpents that go with a regular pace in their movements, and others that dart, and jerk, and spring as they pass along, or as they attack the objects of their prey.

Our Lord speaks in the Gospel of giving us power to tread upon serpents, to lift up serpents, and He denounces wicked people as serpents who are in danger of the severest consummation of their wickedness.

The serpent has often been worshiped, and there are portions of India at present where the serpent is regarded as an object of veneration and esteem. From all these considerations we may conclude that the serpent is representative of something extremely common, something, indeed, affecting in one or other of its varieties every portion of mankind, and descriptive of some characteristic of every human being.

By bearing in mind its general feature, and that its name serpent is derived from serps, to creep, we may fairly conclude that it represents the sensual degree of our minds, that part of us which creeps as it were near the earth, which is constantly concerned in observing the appearances and outsides of things. The center of this degree of the soul is self-love, the I in the soul. As it predominates, the serpent in us prevails; as it is subdued, the angel part in us prevails.

Eternal things depend upon a right or a wrong condition of this part of the soul. The influences of heaven and the influences of the lower world meet in this degree of the soul, and if we conquer self we become truly angelic men, if we are overcome by self we become human serpents. If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, said the Lord.

This is the very essence of all religion. Unless this is done, in reality, nothing is done. Self and knowledge make not only a knowing, but a vain, fretful, querulous, and ostentatious person. Self and ignorance make a headstrong and obstinate clown.

Self and philosophy make a proud, distant, cold, and exacting mind. Self and religious views make a pretentious, sanctimonious character, keen and crafty, but disguised by a dress of pious profession and outside attention to the means of religion, with an utter destitution of its heart, its justice, and its charity.

Against such combinations the Apostle turned when he said, Though I have all knowledge and all faith, so that I could remove mountains and have not charity, I am nothing. The reason why the serpent forms so frequent an object named in the Divine Word is the essential position the principle it symbolizes holds in the human character. It is the master passion. Virtue comes from subduing it; vice from allowing it to rule. All the different kinds of evil are but the varieties which lawless self-love assumes, or the subordinate results to which it gives rise.

All stealing and all unjust appropriation of anothers property arise from self in the dishonest person seeking its objects without the least concern for the rights or well-being of the persons plundered.

The violences of fretfulness, impatience, and passion, even murder itself, come from self excited to the extent of total disregard of the feelings: rights, and life even of another. All disregard of the Sabbath, of reverence for divine things, and the denial of the existence of God Himself: comes from the persistent efforts of self, dreading, disliking, repelling all interference with its self-seeking schemes and efforts, and when it has buried itself in its own darkness, it vainly imagines that it has shrouded itself from the divine eye, and at length it has proved there is no God. As well might the mole declare in its own dark burrow that it had proved there is no sun. The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works.–Ps. xiv. 1.

Self hatches all manner of subterfuges and lies, from the ready falsehood of the small habitual knave to those contrivers of grand schemes of deceptive theology not according to the Divine Word, but according to ancient or modern Phariseeism, which make the commandments of God of none effect. They make all religion to consist in the tremendous self-delusion that we can claim all our Saviors merit, not an atom of which belongs to us; and shift upon the Redeemer all our monstrous sins, not an atom of which belongs to Him. Life is nothing, love nothing, virtue nothing, character nothing, obedience nothing, only the belief any moment of what these people say, which they call faith. O self! self! self! what juggles are these thou playest with reason-gifted man! They hatch cockatrice eggs, and weave the spiders web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper. Their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works: their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands.–Isa. Lix. 5, 6.

The Israelites, at the time to which our text relates, had with few exceptions become very restive, impatient, and unreasonable. They were approaching the end of the forty years abode in the wilderness, and had been protected by divine care all that time in the most wonderful manner. But there they were, complaining, murmuring, conspiring: defying, insolent against Moses and Aaron, at the least new trouble all wrong again, and worse than ever.

They had taken part with Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. They had had a temporary privation of water, and instead of trusting that He who gave them daily manna would prevent them from sinking for want of daily water, they chode with Moses and said, Would God that we had died, when our brethren died before the Lord.–Num. xx. 3.

Now, they mere somewhat wearied with their journey, and they mere discouraged, and again the wild, rebellious spirit broke out, and the people spake against God and against Moses. What a people was this! What was to be done with them? After all the unexampled mercies they had received, and were receiving, ready to burst out on the slightest privation into words and acts of pride and insolence.

As the symbols of their states, the Lord sent Fiery Serpents among the people, which bit their bodies, and much people of Israel died.

This seemed a severe punishment, but it was nothing to what they were inflicting upon their own souls. Their selfishness was raging and insolent, destroying in their immortal part; all that was good and true. They were full of fiery flying serpents indeed. They were spiritually dying from deadly bites within. And what would it profit a man if he gained the whole world and lost his own soul?

We often experience these fiery flying serpents now. When bitter passion is excited, and a person goes about venting rage on all sides, keen, flaming, insolent, what do we see but a fiery flying serpent? Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; which imagine mischiefs in their heart; continually are they gathered together for war. They have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders poison is under their lips.–Ps. cxl. 1-3. Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear: which will not hearken to the voice of the charmers, charming never so wisely.–lviii. 4, 5. Out of the serpents root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent. Out of self-love, the serpents root, come forth selfish schemes, the cockatrice; and these, when opposed, are full of animosity, rage, and destructive violence; the fruits are fiery flying serpents.

They are said to be sent by the Lord; not that anything evil ever comes directly from Him, for His tender mercies are over all His works, and His mercy endureth for ever; but because His laws in the universe are such that evil and punishment must go together. To accomplish the highest good for all, He must permit evil to bring its punishment. The Hebrews referred all things to God, without defining whether it was in the map of permission or of ordination.

Thus He was said to send plagues, as in the case of the death of the first-born of Egypt, although in reality it was the destroying spirits of the kingdom of darkness who inflicted death (Ex. xii. 23; Rev. ix. 11).

When a stormy and violent spirit has exhausted itself, and possibly even inflicted severe injury on its nervous system by passion; when suffering pain, it supposes it is punished by the Divine Being, but it is really punished by itself, and by the evil spirits associated with it.

The Lord, our Heavenly Father and Savior, is so good, so pure, so merciful, so altogether Love and Wisdom in Divine Human Form, that the touch of His hand is ever the touch of infinite gentleness. The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down. The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth. Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion: bless the Lord, O my soul. He is the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. His divine influx, flowing into creation, clothes itself in beauty and brightness.

But, besides the Lord and His kingdom, which operate for blessing in all the myriad forms of order, loveliness, and good, to train man and to bless him, there is in the spiritual world, as there is in the natural world, the kingdom of malignity, darkness, and disorder. This kingdom, with the dreadful spirits which belong to it, press round man, and would fain inject into him and into the world their horrid, hateful poisonous life. Hence come diseases of various kinds, hence blindness and delusion. Hence vile essences filled the matter capable of being animated by impure life, and hideous monsters were formed at first, and are continued still in being. The hells overflow with horrid, disgusting, dreadful forms, and these embody themselves in disorderly substances in nature. John saw the bottomless pit send out a smoke, and there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth (Rev. ix. 3). So come tigers, venomous reptiles, and poisonous plants. It is not the pure life of God which is directly embodied in such destructive and hideous forms, but Gods life perverted, by passing through infernal natures, and infernal spheres. It is true, Gods life is the origin of all things, but of all things according to order.

When, then, it is said that the Lord sent the Fiery Serpents, we must understand that when the people were selfishly violent, and their souls were filled with malignant tempers, they became leagued with infernal societies, and all around them swarmed infernal life, and this in accordance with the Divine laws of order.

The same thing takes place now, but mentally.

Let a person come into a selfish and wrathful state, and fiendish spirits of darkness gather round, filling his mental atmosphere with the hisses of hate, and he feels as if his very hair, like the curls of Medusa, were all snakes.

This is said to be from the Lord, because it is in accordance with His laws. But the real immediate causes are from evil, and from hell. All light is from the Sun, but the color it is in any room depends upon the kind of glass it shines through.

That which takes place now, mentally, took place among the Jews naturally; for it was the character of that outward dispensation that its blessings were realized in outward plenty and beauty of every kind, when the people were obedient; and when they were disobedient, outward calamities befell them, wild beasts harassed them, blights fell upon their crops, different kinds of caterpillars ate them up. They had a shadow of good things to come, and also of evil things.

Here, then, it is said that serpents, called from the inflammatory nature of their bite the Fiery Serpents, came upon them, and bit them, so that many died. They were the embodiment of the infernal spheres into which the Israelites had cast themselves, and only from the Lord, because the laws of the universe are from Him, and the life that creates all things is His.

The people were appalled. We, too, should have been terrified at so peculiar and tremendous a plague.

There is a parallel to it with ourselves, when we suffer our minds to lie transported with rage and vexation, and chafe and gnaw ourselves until we lose all the life of love and virtue, and many of Israel die. Let us beware of this dread calamity. Let us seek the gentle influences of heavenly charity every day, and when the asp or the cockatrice shall stir in their dens, let the gentle powers of faith and love put them down and realize the beautiful words, The sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice den, and they shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.

When the people saw the calamity they had brought upon themselves, they were filled with terror, and humbled themselves. They came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against thee: pray unto the Lord, that he take sway the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.

Moses was directed to make an image of the Serpent, and he made a serpent of brass and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

This Serpent was the symbol of the sensuous part of the Humanity of our Lord, and looking at it represented faith in Him. Our Lord Himself taught this, for He said, As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.–John iii. 14, 15.

The Brazen Serpent being the means of deliverance and of safety, represented the Lords taking our nature, coming down to the life of our senses. Moses made this serpent to represent that the Word became flesh: the Divine Wisdom clothed itself in outer nature, and lived down into the senses. But the serpent was lifted up. Literally, on the cross spiritually, by glorification the Son of Man was lifted up. He is now lifted up, so that He is Divinely Human. In Him, God is Man and Man is God. The Divinity in the Humanity fills heaven, and rules earth and hell. All power is given unto Him in heaven and on earth. He has the keys of hell and of death. The saving Serpent was made of brass (strictly copper), because that metal signifies natural good, or good in the lowest degree of the mind.

The feet of brass, like the Serpent of brass, represent the Divine Goodness in the Lords natural mind in His Glorified Humanity.

This Divine manifested itself in His condescending care for His peoples wants in the days of His sojourn on earth. How tender He was with the sorrowing. How kindly He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, strength to the lame, forgiveness to the erring, lessons of mercy and love to all.

He stooped to become a man that He might reach us, and that we might reach Him. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Thus the spiritually serpent-bitten could look upon Him and live.

Among men there was neither an example of true unselfishness, nor had they power to attain it. Then was the reign of the serpents, then mankind were bitten by them in all directions, many of Israel dying.

But the serpent bruiser was at hand. The love of God, manifested in a Divine Human life, presented a life that all could see; and all, in whom heaven had yet any representative of admiration for goodness or reverence for truth, could be drawn to Him, who lived for them a life of constant self-sacrifice and perfect truth; who died for them a death of self-sacrifice; and who rose again for them triumphant over death and hell.

He took our very nature, even our serpent nature, debased in the likeness of sinful flesh, for the Lord caused to meet in Him the iniquity of us all (Isa. liii. 6), that He might be tempted in all points, even as we are tempted, that He might be touched with a feeling of our infirmities (Heb. iv. 15). But He bruised the serpents head, and then with the fan of omnipotence in His hand He thoroughly purged the world of mind; He broke open the prison-houses of mens souls, burst their bonds and set them free; then glorified the nature he had assumed, and made it perfect. He made the Serpent in Himself a brazen serpent–that is, filled it with Divine Human Goodness, and raised it up for the passion-bitten, lust-tormented souls of the universe to look upon and live, or, in other words, to trust in and love.

Its position implied that the sufferers must look up. The soul must turn from self to the Savior, from earth to heaven. It was as the Redeemer said, I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.

The tossed and the torn in heart, the wearied and the humbled who feel that they are dying if no help comes, muse from their very hearts look up. A glorious sight is before them. One full of goodness is exalted to be their Prince and Savior. Look unto me He says, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is none else. Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. He is the all-glorious object of faith. He has made it possible for souls to turn to Him, and now He will heal and bless the sufferers. They will not only behold, but live. And they who live and believe in Him shall never die.

With what exulting life, what bounding joy would the serpent-bitten find the poison neutralized, health restored, and the terrible danger gone. The earth would glisten in a new light. Fear and dread would give place to gratitude and love. Everything would smile upon them, for they were now freed, saved, and happy. So is it with the sin-delivered spirit wherever found. If any man be in Christ he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

Author: Jonathan Bayley — From Egypt to Canaan (1869)