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of brass, he lived." Now our Lord tells Nicodemus, that there is something in this history, which shadows out the way of obtaining the life from above, or the everlasting life. May His own blessed spirit guide us to the right understanding of it.
The sin of the people recorded here, is the sin of questioning and denying God's love and faithfulness in bringing them out of Egypt, “ wherefore have ye brought us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness ?” They were punished by having fiery serpents sent amongst them, who bit many of them, so that much people of Israel died. In this distress, they came to Moses, and confessed that they had sinned, and said,
Pray unto the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” Moses prayed, and God heard and answered, but instead of taking away the serpents, He desired Moses to set up a brazen serpent on a pole, with the assurance, that the very sight of it should have the effect of counteracting the poison of the bites, and thus renovating the life of those who had been bitten. “ It shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live."
Nicodemus had asked how he was to get the new life from above? and Jesus told him that the way of getting it was shadowed out, by the way in which the bitten Israelites got their tainted life renewed, according to this history. The life of which our Lord spoke, was the life of the soul, whilst the life which was restored by the sight of the brazen serpent was the life of the body, (and this difference must be well attended to,) but still in both cases it was a life that was to be renovated or acquired.
In the case of the Israelites, it was not the favour of God, nor the forgiveness of God, which they were to
gain by looking at the serpent, it was life. When the serpents were first sent amongst them, they naturally regarded them as a sign of God's anger, and at that time they asked Moses to pray to God for a deliverance. They understood that the serpents had been sent as a punishment of sin, and they confessed their sin and asked forgiveness. The prayer was answered by the command to Moses to set up the serpent of brass. This was the form in which it pleased God to send them deliverance. This was the form in which He chose to manifest His love and His forgive
And all who understood the order that had been given to Moses, would necessarily recognise in it, that God indeed loved them and had forgiven them, and they would look to the serpent, not for love, nor for forgiveness, but for that healing, that life, of which it was the appointed channel.
If any one of the Israelites, after the lifting up of the serpent, had asked Moses to pray that God would give them forgiveness and deliverance in this calamity, that man would have been denying that God had already, in the lifting up of the serpent, given them a deliverance, and manifested His forgiving love to them. To such an application most assuredly Moses would have made answer, by asking the man, “ If he had not heard of the brazen serpent ? for if he had heard of it, that he was treading under foot God's manifested love, and was doing despite unto the spirit of grace, for that in the serpent, God had already given health
and any man in the camp remained uncured, it was because he would not be cured.” Let us suppose the Israelite replying to Moses, " I don't know whether God loves me or has forgiven me, and, therefore, I don't know whether He will give the ser
and a cure,
power of healing me; assuredly I am not yet healed." Moses might have answered, “Has God excepted
any man from a participation in this wondrous gift ? Is it not for the whole nation, and specially for everyone that is bitten? And is not the gift of this healing ordinance to this whole nation of rebellious murmurers, a demonstration of God's love and forgiveness to them all, and consequently to each one of them all? What else but love and forgiving love could have induced Him to give them such a gift ? As to your not being cured, the reason is that
have not looked at the serpent according to God's commandment. God has loved and forgiven the people whether they look at the serpent or not, but if they will not look at it, they cannot be healed, they cannot be saved from the effects of the poisonous bites, they cannot have their diseased and tainted life renovated."
If the man had said, That love and that forgiveness are of little value, which leave me in this diseased state ; do you not think that the wrath of Moses would have waxed hot against him, and that he would have
pronounced him an obstinate contemner of the graciousness of God.
Before the serpent was lifted up, the people might have asked Moses to pray for God's forgiving love as a thing which they had forfeited, and which might most righteously have been withheld from them. But after the serpent was lifted up, a petition for mercy or forgiveness, which meant any thing else than an acknowledgment of their own absolute unworthiness—a petition for mercy and forgiveness in short, which arose not from a humbling sense of a compassion which faileth not, but from a doubt whether mercy and forgiveness had really been extended to them, such a petition could only have been considered as an expression of presumptuous unbelief, for it would have been a direct denial that God had given them a deliverance by putting a healing virtue in the serpent so lifted up.
It would have been an offence of the same nature, as their refusal to go in and take possession of the promised land, although God had told them that he had given it to them as their inheritance ; and let me here direct the attention of my readers to the language of the spirit of God in narrating that transaction. God was angry with the people for their unbelief, and threatened to destroy them; and Moses prayed for the people just by repeating over God's proclamation of his own name. The Lord God, merciful and gracious, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, but by no means clearing the guilty ; and God answered, “ I have pardoned according to thy word;" (that is, according to his own great name which Moses had only repeated,) “ but as truly as I live”—“ they shall not see the land which I promised to their fathers,” (Numbers xiv.) Compare this history with the third chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews, where it is recorded for our admonition, that these men, these very pardoned men, could not enter into the promised land because of unbelief. Even so Moses might have answered an unhealed Israelite who was doubting or cavilling about God's forgiving love to himself,—“God hath pardoned thee, but thou can'st not be healed,—thy poisoned life cannot be renovated -without looking at the serpent; it is not God's love nor his pardon that thou art to get by looking at the serpent, but health and renovated life. His love and his pardon were manifested in the appointment of the serpent, as gifts already bestowed—they were given unconditionally—but health depends on looking at the serpent." God's command to Moses to lift up the serpent was, in fact, a declaration on the part of God that he had forgiven the people, and that he loved them and desired for them that they should be healed. He commanded it to be raised up not that he might love the people who should look at it, and so be healed, but because he loved the people, and desired for them that they should be healed. Whosoever remained unhealed, remained so, in consequence of frustrating the counsel of God against himself, for the serpent was certainly lifted up for the whole people, for thus said the Lord, and it shall come to pass that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it shall live. In that appointment, there was embodied a love and a forgiveness, and a purpose of healing for every one that was bitten.
As I am fully persuaded, that the confounding or identifying of the pardon with the life, has been, and is a most fruitful source of error in religion, I must beg the reader's particular attention to the strongly marked distinction which is made between them in this history. There cannot be stronger evidence for any thing, than that the serpent, lifted up in the circumstances of the case, contained a demonstration to the Israelites, not only of a love on the part of God to them, but of a forgiveness already past. If any one feels a doubt on this subject, let him only consider the following case. In Athens, it is well known that certain criminals were punished by being compelled to swallow poison. Now, let us suppose, that the go