Part 12 out of 12
Scripture are conditional.
This striking incident of Moses' intercession suggests to us some
thoughts as to
I. The ground of the divine forgiveness.
The appeal is not based on anything in the people. God is not asked
to forgive because of their repentance or their faith. True, these
are the conditions on which His pardon is received by us, but they
are not the reasons why it is given by Him. Nor does Moses appeal to
any sacrifices that had been offered and were conceived to placate
God. But he goes deeper than all such pleas, and lays hold, with
sublime confidence, on God's own nature as his all-powerful plea.
'The greatness of Thy mercy' is the ground of the divine
forgiveness, and the mightiest plea that human lips can urge. It
suggests that His very nature is pardoning love; that 'mercy' is
proper to Him, that it is the motive and impulse of His acts. He
forgives because He is mercy. That is the foundation truth. It is
the deep spring from which by inherent impulse all the streams of
forgiveness well up.
What was true when Moses prayed for the rebels is true to-day.
Christ's work is the consequence, not the cause, of God's pardoning
love. It is the channel through which the waters reach us, but the
waters made the channel for themselves.
II. The persistency of the divine pardon.
'As thou hast forgiven ... even until now.'
His past is the guarantee of His future. This is true of every one
of His attributes. There is no limitation to the divine forgiveness;
you cannot exhaust it.
Sometimes there may be long tracts of almost utter godlessness, or
times of apathy. Sometimes there may be bursts of great and
unsanctified evil after many professions of fidelity, as in David's
case. Sometimes there may be but a daily experience in which there
is little apparent progress, little consciousness of growing mastery
over sin, little of deepening holiness and spiritual power. Be it so!
To all such, and to every other form of Christian unfaithfulness,
this blessed thought applies.
We are apt to think as if our many pardons in the past made future
pardons less likely, whereas the truth is that we have received
forgiveness so often in the past that we may be quite sure that it
will never fail us in the future. God has established a precedent in
His dealings with us. He binds Himself by His past.
As in His creative energy, the forces that flung the whole universe
forth were not exhausted by the act, but subsist continually to
sustain it, as 'He fainteth not, neither is weary,' so in the works
of His providence, and more especially of His grace, there is
nothing in the exercise of any of His attributes to exhaust
_that_ attribute, nothing in the constant appeal which we make
to His forgiving grace to weary out that grace. And thus we may
learn, even from the unfading glories of the heavens and the
undimmed splendours of His creative works, the lesson that, in the
holier region of His love, and His pardoning mercy, there is no
exhaustion, and that all the past instances of His pardoning grace
only make the broader, firmer ground of certainty as to His
continuous present and future forgiveness for all our iniquity. He
who has proposed to us the 'seventy times seven' as the number of
our forgivenesses will not let His own fall short of that tale. Our
iniquities may be 'more than the hairs of our heads,' but as the
psalmist who found his to be so comforted himself with thinking,
God's 'thoughts which are to usward' were 'more than can be
numbered.' There would be a pardoning thought for every sin, and
after all sins had been forgiven, there would be 'multitudes of
redemptions' still available for penitent souls.
There is but one thing that limits the divine pardon, and that is
continuous rejection of it.
Whoever seeks to be pardoned _is_ pardoned.
III. The manner of the divine forgiveness.
He pardoned, but He also inflicted punishment, and in both He loves
equally. The worst, that is the spiritual, consequences (which are
the punishments) of sin, namely separation and alienation from God,
He removes in the very act of forgiveness, but His pardon does not
affect the natural consequences. 'Thou wast a God that forgavest
them and tookest vengeance of their inventions,' says a psalmist in
reference to this very incident. Thank God that He loves us too
wisely and well not to let us by experience 'know that it is a
bitter thing to forsake the Lord.'
It is a blessing that He does so, and a sign that we are pardoned,
if we rightly use it.
IV. The vehicle of the divine forgiveness.
The Mediator. Moses here may be taken as a dim shadow of Christ.
'Moses was faithful in all his house' but Jesus is the true
Mediator, whose intercession consists in presenting the constant
efficacy of His sacrifice, and to whom God ever says, 'I have
pardoned according to Thy word.'
Trust utterly to Him. You cannot weary out the forgiving love of
God. 'Christ ever liveth to make intercession'; with God is
'plenteous redemption.' 'He shall redeem Israel out of _all_
SERVICE A GIFT
'... I have given your priest's office unto you as a
service of gift.'--NUM. xviii. 7.
All Christians are priests--to offer sacrifices, alms, especially
prayers; to make God known to men.
I. Our priesthood is a gift of God's love.
We are apt to think of our duties as burdensome. They are an honour
and a mark of God's grace.
1. They are His gift--
_(a)_ The power to do. All capacities and possessions from Him.
_(b)_ The wish to do. 'Worketh in you to will.'
_(c)_ The right to do, through Christ.
2. They are a blessing.
_(a)_ Note the good effects on ourselves--the increase of
fellowship with Him, the strengthening of all holy desires.
_(b)_ The future benefits. Apply this to prayer and to effort
on behalf of our fellow-men.
II. Our priesthood is to be done as a service--under a sense of
obligation to a master, with diligence (an [Greek: ergon], not a
III. Our priesthood is to be done as a gift to God--to be done
joyfully, giving ourselves back to Him: 'Yield yourselves unto
God'--'your reasonable service.'
Then only do we really possess ourselves, and 'all things are ours,
for we are Christ's, and Christ is God's.'
THE WATERS OF MERIBAH
'Then came the children of Israel, even the whole
congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first
month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died
there, and was buried there. 2. And there was no water
for the congregation: and they gathered themselves
together against Moses and against Aaron. 3. And the
people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God
that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord!
4. And why have ye brought up the congregation of the
Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should
die there? 5. And wherefore have ye made us to come up out
of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? It is no
place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates;
neither is there any water to drink. 6. And Moses and
Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the
door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell
upon their faces: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto
them. 7. And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 8. Take
the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou,
and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before
their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou
shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou
shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.
9. And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He
commanded him. 10. And Moses and Aaron gathered the
congregation together before the rock, and he said unto
them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out
of this rock? 11. And Moses lifted up his hand, and with
his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out
abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts
also. 12. And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron,
Because ye believed Me not, to sanctify Me in the eyes
of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring
this congregation into the land which I have given them.
13. This is the water of Meribah; because the children
of Israel strove with the Lord, and He was sanctified
in them.'--NUM. xx. 1-13.
Kadesh had witnessed the final trial and failure of the generation
that came out of Egypt; now we see the first trial and failure of
the new generation, thirty-seven years after, on the same spot. Deep
silence shrouds the history of these dreary years; but, probably,
the congregation was broken up, and small parties roamed over the
country, without purpose or hope, while Moses and a few of the
leaders kept by the tabernacle. There is a certain emphasis in the
phrase of the first verse of this chapter, 'the children of Israel,
even the _whole_ congregation,' which suggests that this was
the first reassembling of the scattered units since the last act of
the 'whole congregation.' 'The first month' was, then, the first of
the fortieth year, and the gathering was either in obedience to the
summons of Moses, who knew that the fixed time had now come, or was
the result of common knowledge of the fact. In any case, we have
here the first act of a new epoch, and the question to be tried is
whether the new men are any better than the old. It is this which
gives importance to the event, and explains the bitterness of Moses
at finding the old spirit living in the children. It was his trial
as well as theirs. He resumed the functions which had substantially
been in abeyance for a generation, and by his conduct showed that he
had become unfit for the new form which the leadership must take
with the invasion of Canaan.
I. We note the old murmurings on the lips of the new generation. The
lament of a later prophet fits these hereditary grumblers,--'In vain
have I smitten your children; they received no correction.' The
place where they reassembled might have taught them the sin of
unbelief; their parents' graves should have enforced the lesson. But
the long years of wandering, and two millions of deaths, had been
useless. The weather-beaten but sturdy strength of the four old men,
the only survivors, might have preached the wisdom of trust in the
God in whose 'favour is life.' But the people 'had learned nothing and
forgotten nothing.' The old cuckoo-cry, which had become so
monotonous from their fathers, is repeated, with differences, not in
their favour. They do not, indeed, murmur directly against God,
because they regard Moses and Aaron as responsible. 'Why,' say they,
'have _ye_ brought up the congregation of the Lord?' They seem to use
that name with a touch of pride in their relation to God, while
destitute of any real obedience, and so they show the first traces of
the later spirit of the nation. They have acquired cattle while living
in the oases of the wilderness, and they are anxious about them.
They acknowledge the continuity of national life in their question,
'Wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt?' though most of
them had been born in the wilderness. The fear that moved their fathers
to unbelief was more reasonable and less contemptible than this
murmuring, which ignores God all but utterly, and is ready to throw
up everything at the first taste of privation.
It is a signal instance of the solemn law by which the fathers' sins
are inherited by the children who prove themselves heirs to their
ancestors by repeating their deeds. It is fashionable now to deny
original sin, and equally fashionable to affirm 'heredity,' which is
the same thing, put into scientific language. There is such a thing
as national character persistent through generations, each unit of
which adds something to the force of the tendencies which he
receives and transmits, but which never are so omnipotent as to
destroy individual guilt, however they may lighten it.
Note, too, the awful power of resistance to God's educating
possessed by our wills. The whole purpose of these men's lives, thus
far, had been to fit them for being God's instruments, and for the
reception of His blessing. The desert was His school for body and
mind, where muscles and wills were to be braced, and solitude and
expectation might be nurses of lofty thoughts, and in the silence
God's voice might sound. What better preparation of a hardy race of
God-trusting heroes could there have been, and what came of it all?
Failure all but complete! The instrument tempered with so much care
has its edge turned at the first stroke. The old sore breaks out at
the old spot. Man's will has an awful power to thwart God's
training; and of all the sad mysteries of this sad mysterious world,
this is the saddest and most mysterious, and is the root of all
other sadness and mystery,--that a man can set his pin-point of a
will against that great Will which gives him all his power, and when
God beckons can say, 'I will not,' and can render His most sedulous
Note, too, that trivial things are large enough to hide plain duties
and bright possibilities. These men knew that they had come to
Kadesh for the final assault, which was to recompense all their
hardships. Their desert training should have made them less
resourceless and desperate when water failed; but the hopes of
conquest and the duty of trust cannot hold their own against present
material inconvenience. They even seem to make bitter mockery of the
promises, when they complain that Kadesh is 'no place of seed, or of
figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates,' which were the fruits
brought by the spies,--as if they had said, 'So this stretch of
waterless sand is the fertile land you talked of, is it? This is all
that we have got by reassembling here.' Do we not often feel that
the drought of Kadesh is more real than the grapes of Eshcol? Are we
not sometimes tempted to bitter comparisons of the fair promises
with the gloomy realities? Does our courage never flag, nor our
faith falter, nor swirling clouds of doubt hide the inheritance from
our weary and tear-filled eyes? He that is without sin may cast the
first stone at these men; but whoever knows his own weak heart will
confess that, if he had been among that thirsty crowd, he would,
most likely, have made one of the murmurers.
II. Note God's repetition of His old gift to the new generation.
Moses makes no attempt to argue with the people, but casts himself
in entreaty before the door of the Tabernacle, as if crushed and
helpless in face of this heart-breaking proof of the persistent
obstinacy of the old faults. God's answer recalls the former miracle
at Rephidim (Exodus xvii. 1-7) in the early days of the march, when
the same cries had come from lips now silent, and the rock, smitten
at God's command by the rod which had parted the sea, yielded water.
The only differences are that here Moses is bid to speak, not to
smite; and that the miracle is to be done before all the
congregation, instead of before the elders only. Both variations
seem to have the common purpose of enhancing the wonder, and
confirming the authority of Moses, to a generation to whom the old
deliverances were only hearsay, and many of whom were in contact
with the leader for the first time. The fact that we have here the
beginning of a new epoch, and a new set of people, goes far to
explain the resemblance of the two incidents, without the need of
supposing, with many critics, that they are but different versions
of one 'legend.' The repetition of scarcity of water is not
wonderful; the recurrence of the murmurings is the sad proof of the
unchanged temper of the people, and the repetition of the miracle is
the merciful witness of the patience of God. His charity 'is not
easily provoked, is not soon angry,' but stoops to renew gifts which
had been so little appreciated that the remembrance of them failed
to cure distrust. Unbelief is obstinate, but His loving purpose is
more persistent still. Rephidim should have made the murmuring at
Kadesh impossible; but, if it does not, then He will renew the
mercy, though it had been once wasted, and will so shape the second
gift that it shall recall the first, if haply both may effect what
one had failed to do. When need is repeated, the supply is
forthcoming, even when it is demanded by sullen and forgetful
distrust. We can wear out men's patience, but God's is
inexhaustible. The same long-suffering Hand that poured water from
the rock for two generations of distrustful murmurers still lavishes
its misused gifts on us, to win us to late repentance, 'and
upbraideth not' for our slowness to learn the lessons of His
III. Note the breaking down at last of the long-tried leader's
patience. It is in striking contrast with the patience of God. Psalm
cvi. 32, 33, describes the sin of Moses as twofold; namely, anger
and speaking 'unadvisedly.' His harsh words, so unlike his pleadings
on the former occasion of rebellion at Kadesh, have a worse thing
than an outburst of temper in them. 'Must _we_ fetch you water
out of the rock?' arrogates to himself the power of working
miracles. He forgets that he was as much an instrument, and as
little a force, as his own rod. His angry scolding betrays wounded
personal importance, and annoyance at rebellion against his own
authority, rather than grief at the people's distrust of God, and
also a distinct clouding over of his own consciousness of dependence
for all his power on God, and an impure mingling of thoughts of
self. The same turbid blending of anger and self-regard impelled his
arm to the passionately repeated strokes, which, in his heat, he
substituted for the quiet words that he was bidden to speak. The
Palestinian Tar gum says very significantly, that at the first
stroke the rock dropped blood, thereby indicating the tragic
sinfulness of the angry blow. How unworthy a representative of the
long-suffering God was this angry man! 'The servant of the Lord must
not strive,' nor give the water with which he is entrusted, with
contempt or anger in his heart. That gift requires meek compassion
in its stewards.
But the failure of Moses' patience was only too natural. The whole
incident has to be studied as the first of a new era, in which both
leader and led were on their trial. During the thirty-seven years of
waiting, Moses had had but little exercise of that part of his
functions, and little experience of the people's temper. He must
have looked forward anxiously to the result of the desert hardening;
he must have felt more remote from and above the children than he
did to their parents, his contemporaries who had come with him from
Egypt, and so his disappointment must have been proportionately
keen, when the first difficulty that rose revealed the old spirit in
undiminished force. For forty years he had been patient, and ready
to swallow mortifications and ignore rebellion against himself, and
to offer himself for his people; but now, when men whom he had seen
in their swaddling-clothes showed the same stiff-necked distrust as
had killed their fathers, the breaking-point of his patience was
reached. That burst of anger is a grave symptom of lessened love for
the sinful murmurers; and lessened love always means lessened power
to guide and help. The people are not changed, but Moses is. He has
no longer the invincible patience, the utter self-oblivion, the
readiness for self-sacrifice, which had borne him up of old, and so
he fails. We may learn from his failure that the prime requisite for
doing God's work is love, which cannot be moved to anger nor stirred
to self-assertion, but meets and conquers murmuring and rebellion by
patient holding forth of God's gift, and is, in some faint degree,
an echo of His endless long-suffering. He who would serve men must,
sleeping or waking, carry them in his heart, and pity their sin.
They who would represent God to men, and win men for God, must be
'imitators of God ... and walk in love.' If the bearer of the water
of life offers it with 'Hear, ye rebels,' it will flow untasted.
IV. Note the sentence on the leader, and the sad memorial name.
Moses is blamed for not believing nor sanctifying God. His self-
assertion in his unadvised speech came from unbelief, or
forgetfulness of his dependence. He who claims power to himself,
denies it to God. Moses put himself between God and the people, not
to show but to hide God; and, instead of exalting God's holiness
before them by declaring Him to be the giver, he intercepted the
thanks and diverted them to himself. But was his momentary failure
not far too severely punished? To answer that question, we must
recur to the thought of the importance of this event as beginning a
new chapter, and as a test for both Moses and Israel. His failure
was a comparatively small matter in itself; and if the sentence is
regarded merely as the punishment of a sin, it appears sternly
disproportionate to the offence. Were eighty years of faithful
service not sufficient to procure the condonation of one moment's
impatience? Is not that harsh treatment? But a tiny blade above-
ground may indicate the presence of a poisonous root, needing
drastic measures for its extirpation; and the sentence was not only
punishment for sin, but kind, though punitive, relief from an office
for which Moses had no longer, in full measure, his old
qualifications. The subsequent history does not show any withdrawal
of God's favour from him, and certainly it would be no very sore
sorrow to be freed from the heavy load, carried so long. There is
disapprobation, no doubt, in the sentence; but it treats the conduct
of Moses rather as a symptom of lessened fitness for his heavy
responsibility than as sin; and there is as much kindness as
condemnation in saying to the wearied veteran, who has stood at his
post so long and has taken up arms once more, 'You have done enough.
You are not what you were. Other hands must hold the leader's staff.
Enter into rest.'
Note that Moses was condemned for doing what Jesus always did,
asserting his power to work miracles. What was unbelief and a sinful
obtrusion of himself in God's place when the great lawgiver did it,
was right and endorsed by God when the Carpenter of Nazareth did it.
Why the difference? A greater than Moses is here, when He says to
us, 'What will ye that I should do unto you?'
The name of Meribah-Kadesh is given to suggest the parallel and
difference with the other miraculous flow of water. The two
incidents are thus brought into connection, and yet individualised.
'Meribah,' which means 'strife,' brands the murmuring as sinful
antagonism to God: 'Kadesh,' which means 'holy,' brings both the
miracle and the sentence under the common category of acts by which
God manifested His holiness to the new generation; and so the double
name is a reminder of sin that they may be humble, and of mingled
mercy and judgment that they may 'trust and obey.'
THE POISON AND THE ANTIDOTE
'And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the
Red Sea, to compare the land of Edom: and the soul of
the people was much discouraged because of the way.
5. And the people spake against God, and against Moses,
Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in
the wilderness? for there is no bread, neither is there
any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. 6. And
the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they
bit the people; and much people of Israel died. 7. 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. 8. 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. 9. 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.'
--NUM. xxi. 4-9.
The mutinous discontent of the Israelites had some excuse when they
had to wheel round once more and go southwards in consequence of the
refusal of passage through Edom. The valley which stretches from the
Dead Sea to the head of the eastern arm of the Red Sea, down which
they had to plod in order to turn the southern end of the mountains
on its east side, and then resume their northern march outside the
territory of Edom, is described as a 'horrible desert.' Certainly it
yielded neither bread nor water. So the faithless pilgrims broke
into their only too familiar murmurings, utterly ignoring their
thirty-eight years of preservation. 'There is no bread.' No; but the
manna had fallen day by day. 'Our soul loatheth this light bread.'
Yes; but it was bread all the same. Thus coarse tastes prefer garlic
and onions to Heaven's food, and complain of being starved while it
is provided. 'There is no water.' No; but the 'rock that followed
them' gushed out abundance, and there was no thirst.
Murmuring brought punishment, which was meant for amendment. 'The
Lord sent fiery serpents.' That statement does not necessarily imply
a miracle. Scripture traces natural phenomena directly to God's
will, and often overleaps intervening material links between the
cause which is God and the effect which is a physical fact. The
neighbourhood of Elath at the head of the gulf is still infested
with venomous serpents, 'marked with fiery red spots,' from which,
or possibly from the inflammation caused by their poison, they are
here called 'fiery.' God made the serpents, though they were hatched
by eggs laid by mothers; He brought Israel to the place; He willed
the poisonous stings. If we would bring ordinary events into
immediate connection with the Divine hand, and would see in all
calamities fatherly chastisement 'for our profit,' we should
understand life better than we often do.
The swift stroke had fallen without warning or voice to interpret
it, but the people knew in their hearts whence and why it had come.
Their quick recognition of its source and purpose, and their swift
repentance, are to be put to their credit. It is well for us when we
interpret for ourselves God's judgments, and need no Moses to urge
us to humble ourselves before Him. Conscious guilt is conscious of
unworthiness to approach God, though it dares to speak to offended
men. The request for Moses' intercession witnesses to the instinct
of conscience, requiring a mediator,--an instinct which has led to
much superstition and been terribly misguided, but which is deeply
true, and is met once for all in Jesus Christ, our Advocate before
the throne. The request shows that the petitioners were sure of
Moses' forgiveness for their distrust of him, and thus it witnesses
to his 'meekness.' His pardon was a kind of pledge of God's. Was the
servant likely to be more gracious than the Master? A good man's
readiness to forgive helps bad men to believe in a pardoning God. It
reflects some beam of Heaven's mercy.
Moses had often prayed for the people when they had sinned, and
before they had repented. It was not likely that he would be slow to
do so when they asked him, for the asking was accompanied with ample
confession. The serpents had done their work, and the prayer that
the chastisement should cease would be based on the fact that the
sin had been forsaken. But the narrative seems to anticipate that,
after the prayer had been offered and answered, Israelites would
still be bitten. If they were, that confirms the presumption that
the sending of the serpents was not miraculous. It also brings the
whole facts into line with the standing methods of Providence, for
the outward consequences of sin remain to be reaped after the sin
has been forsaken; but they change their character and are no longer
destructive, but only disciplinary. 'Serpents' still 'bite' if we
have 'broken down hedges,' but there is an antidote.
The command to make a brazen or copper serpent, and set it on some
conspicuous place, that to look on it might stay the effect of the
poison, is remarkable, not only as sanctioning the forming of an
image, but as associating healing power with a material object. Two
questions must be considered separately,--What did the method of
cure say to the men who turned their bloodshot, languid eyes to it?
and What does it mean for us, who see it by the light of our Lord's
great words about it? As to the former question, we have not to take
into account the Old Testament symbolism which makes the serpent the
emblem of Satan or of sin. Serpents had bitten the wounded. Here was
one like them, but without poison, hanging harmless on the pole.
Surely that would declare that God had rendered innocuous the else
fatal creatures. The elevation of the serpent was simply intended to
make it visible from afar; but it could not have been set so high as
to be seen from all parts of the camp, and we must suppose that the
wounded were in many cases carried from the distant parts of the
wide-spreading encampment to places whence they could catch a
glimpse of it glittering in the sunshine. We are not told that trust
in God was an essential part of the look, but that is taken for
granted. Why else should a half-dead man lift his heavy eyelids to
look? Such a one knew that God had commanded the image to be made,
and had promised healing for a look. His gaze was fixed on it, in
obedience to the command involved in the promise, and was, in some
measure, a manifestation of faith. No doubt the faith was very
imperfect, and the desire was only for physical healing; but none
the less it had in it the essence of faith. It would have been too
hard a requirement for men through whose veins the swift poison was
burning its way, and who, at the best, were so little capable of
rising above sense, to have asked from them, as the condition of
their cure, a trust which had no external symbol to help it. The
singularity of the method adopted witnesses to the graciousness of
God, who gave their feebleness a thing that they could look at, to
aid them in grasping the unseen power which really effected the
cure. 'He that turned himself to it,' says the Book of Wisdom, 'was
not saved by the thing which he saw, but by Thee, that art the
Saviour of all.'
Our Lord has given us the deepest meaning of the brazen serpent.
Taught by Him, we are to see in it a type of Himself, the
significance of which could not be apprehended till Calvary had
given the key. Three distinct points of parallel are suggested by
His use of the incident in His conversation with Nicodemus. First,
He takes the serpent as an emblem of Himself. Now it is clear that
it is so, not in regard to the saving power that dwells in Him, but
in regard to His sinless manhood, which was made 'in the likeness of
sinful flesh,' yet 'without sin.' The symbolism which takes the
serpent as the material type of sin comes into view now, and is
essential to the full comprehension of the typical significance of
Secondly, Jesus laid stress on the 'lifting up' of the serpent. That
'lifting up' has two meanings. It primarily refers to the
Crucifixion, wherein, just as the death-dealing power was manifestly
triumphed over in the elevation of the brazen serpent, the power of
sin is exhibited as defeated, as Paul says, 'triumphing over them
in it' (Col. ii. 14,15). But that lifting up on the Cross draws
after it the elevation to the throne, and to that, or, rather, to
both considered as inseparably united, our Lord refers when He
says,' I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto
Thirdly, the condition of healing is paralleled. 'When he looked
unto the serpent of brass, he lived.' 'That whosoever believeth may
in Him have eternal life.' From the serpent no healing power flowed;
but our eternal life is '_in_ Him,' and _from_ Him it flows into our
poisoned, dying nature. The sole condition of receiving into ourselves
that new life which is free from all taint of sin, and is mighty enough
to arrest the venom that is diffused through every drop of blood, is
faith in Jesus lifted on the Cross to slay the sin that is slaying
mankind, and raised to the throne to bestow His own immortal and
perfect life on all who look to Him. The bitten Israelite might be all
but dead. The poison wrought swiftly; but if he from afar lifted his
glazing eyeballs to the serpent on the pole, a swifter healing overtook
the death that was all but conqueror, and cast it out, and he who was
borne half unconscious to the foot of the standard went away a sound
man, 'walking, and leaping, and praising God.' So it may be with any
man, however deeply tainted with sin, if he will trust himself to Jesus,
and from 'the ends of the earth' 'look unto' Him 'and be saved,' His
power knows no hopeless cases. He _can_ cure all. He _will_ cure our
most ingrained sin, and calm the hottest fever of our poisoned blood,
if we will let Him. The only thing that we have to do is to gaze, with
our hearts in our eyes and faith in our hearts, on Him, as He is lifted
on the Cross and the throne. But we must so gaze, or we die, for none
but He can cast out the coursing venom. None but He can arrest the
swift-footed death that is intertwined with our very natures.
'He sent messengers therefore unto Balaam the son of
Beor to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of
the children of his people, to call him, saying, Behold
there is a people come out from Egypt: behold, they
cover the face of the earth, and they abide over against
me.'--NUM. xxii. 6.
Give a general outline of the history. See Bishop Butler's great
I. How much knowledge and love of good there may be in a bad man.
Balaam was a prophet:
_(a)_ He knew something of the divine character,
_(b)_ He knew what righteousness was (Micah v. 8).
_(c)_ He knew of a future state, and longed for 'the last end
of the righteous.'
He would not break the law of God, and curse by word of mouth:
But yet for all that he wanted to curse. He wanted to do the wrong
thing, and that made him bad. And when he durst not do it in one
way, he did it in another.
So he is a picture of the universal blending and mixture that there
is even in bad men.
It is not knowledge that makes a man good.
It is not aspirations after righteousness. These dwell more or less
in all souls.
It is not desire 'to go to heaven'--everybody has that desire.
Perfectly vicious men are devils. There is always the blending.
Many of us are trusting to these vagrant wishes, but my friends, it
is not what a man would sometimes like, but what the whole set and
tenor of his life tends towards, that makes him. There may be plenty
of backwater eddies and cross-currents in the sea, but the tide goes
on all the same.
'All these fancies and their whole array
One cunning bosom sin blows quite away,'
'Let no man deceive you; he that doeth righteousness is righteous.'
Do not trust your convictions; they are powerless in the fight.
II. How men may deceive themselves about their condition, or the
self-illusions and compromises of sin.
These convictions will never, by themselves, keep a man from evil,
but they may lead men to try to compromise, just as Balaam did. He
would go, but he would not, for the life of him, curse; and he
evidently thought that he was a hero in firmness and a martyr to
He would not curse in words, but he did it in another way--by means
So we find men making compromises between duty and inclination;
keeping the letter and breaking the spirit; obeying in some respects
and indemnifying themselves for their obedience by their
disobedience in others; very devout, attentive to all religious
observances, and yet sinning on. And we find such men playing tricks
upon themselves, and really deluding themselves into the idea that
they are very good men!
This is the great characteristic of sin, its deceitfulness. It
always comes as an 'angel of light,' like some of those weird
stories in which we read about a strange guest at a banquet who
discloses a skeleton below the wedding garment!
'Father of lies.' '_Nihil imbecillius denudato diabolo._' The
more one sins, the less capable he becomes of discerning evil.
Conscience becomes sophisticated, and it is always possible to
refine away its judgments.
'By reason of use have their senses exercised to discern.' 'Take
heed lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.'
III. The absurdity and unreasonableness of unrighteousness.
We look at Balaam, and think, how could a man purpose anything so
foolish as to go on seeking for an opportunity to break a law which
he knew to be irrevocable!
Yet what did he do but what every sinner does?
All sin is the breach of law which at the very moment of breaking is
known to be imperative.
All sin is thus the overbearing of conscience, or the sophistication
of conscience, and all sin is the incurring voluntarily of
consequences which at the moment are or might be known to be
certain, and far overbalancing any fancied 'wages of unrighteousness.'
Thus all sin is the overbearing of reason or the sophisticating of
reason by passion. Men know the absurdity of sin, and yet men will
go on sinning. 'A rogue is a roundabout fool.' All wrongdoing is a
mighty blunder. It is only righteousness which is congruous with a
man's reason, with a man's conscience, with a man's highest
happiness. 'The fear of the Lord,' that is wisdom.
IV. The wages of unrighteousness.
How Balaam's experiment ended--his death. He tried to make the 'best
of both worlds,' so he ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds,
and this was how it ended, as it always does, as it always will. How
death ends all the illusions, sternly breaks down all the
compromises, reveals all the absurdities!
Men are one thing or the other. Learn, then, the lesson that no
gifts, no talents, no convictions, no aspirations will avail.
Let this sad figure which looks out upon us with grey streaming hair
and uplifted hands from beside the altar on Pisgah speak to us.
How near the haven it is possible to be cast away! Like Bunyan's way
to hell from near the gate of the celestial city.
Balaam said, 'Let me die the death of the righteous!' and his death
was thus:--'Balaam they slew with the sword,' and his epitaph is
'Balaam the son of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness,'
got them, and perished!
AN UNFULFILLED DESIRE
'... Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my
last end be like his!'--NUM. xxiii. 10.
'... Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the
sword.'--NUM. xiii. 8.
Ponder these two pictures. Take the first scene. A prophet, who
knows God and His will, is standing on the mountain top, and as he
looks down over the valley beneath him, with its acacia-trees and
swift river, there spread the tents of Israel. He sees them, and
knows that they are 'a people whom the Lord hath blessed.' Brought
there to curse, 'he blesses them altogether'; and as he gazes upon
their ordered ranks and sees somewhat of the wondrous future that
lay before them, his mind is filled with the thought of all the
blessedness of that righteous nation, and the sigh of longing comes
to his lips, 'May I be with them in life and death; may I have no
higher honour, no calmer end, than to lie down and die as one of the
chosen people, with memories of a divine hand that has protected me
all through the past, and quiet hopes of the same hand holding me up
in the great darkness!' A devout aspiration, a worthy desire!
Look at the other picture. Midian has seduced Israel to idolatry and
its constant companion, sensual sin. The old lawgiver has for his
last achievement to punish the idolater. 'Avenge the children of
Israel of the Midianites, afterwards thou shalt be gathered to thy
people.' So each tribe gives its contingent to the fight, and under
the fierce and prompt Phinehas, whose javelin had already smitten
one of the chief offenders, they go forth. Fire and sword,
devastation and victory, mark their track. The princes of Midian
fall before the swift rush of the desert-born invaders. And--sad,
strange company!--among them is the 'man who saw the vision of the
Almighty, and knew the knowledge of the Most High'! he who had
taught Moab the purest lessons of morality, and Midian, alas! the
practice of the vilest profligacy; he who saw from afar 'the sceptre
arise out of Israel and the Star from Jacob'; he who longed to 'die
the death of the righteous'! The onset of the avenging host, with
the 'shout of a king' in their midst; the terror of the flight, the
riot of havoc and bloodshed, and, finally, the quick thrust of the
sharp Israelite sword in some strong hand, and the grey hairs all
dabbled with his blood--these were what the man came to who had once
breathed the honest desire, 'Let me die the death of the righteous,
and let my last end be like his'!
I. There is surely a solemn lesson for us all here--as touching the
danger of mere vague religious desires and convictions which we do
not allow to determine our conduct.
Balaam had evidently much knowledge. Look at these points--
_(a)_ His knowledge of the covenant-name of God.
_(b)_ His knowledge of a pure morality and a spiritual worship
far beyond sacrificial notions, and in some respects higher than the
then Old Testament standpoint.
_(c)_ The knowledge (which is implied in the text) of a future
state, which had gone far into the background, even if it had not
been altogether lost, among the Israelites. Is it not remarkable
that the religious ideas of this man were in advance of Israel's at
this time; that there seems to have lingered among these 'outsiders'
more of a pure faith than in Israel itself?
What a lesson here as to the souls led by God and enlightened by Him
beyond the pale of Judaism!
But all this knowledge, of what use was it to Balaam? He knows about
God: does he seek to serve Him? He preaches morality to Moab, and he
teaches Midian to 'teach the children of Israel to commit
fornication.' He knows something of the blessedness of a 'righteous
man's' death, and perhaps sees faintly the shining gates beyond--but
how does it all end? What a gulf between _knowledge_ and
What is the use of correct ideas about God? They may be the
foundations of holy thoughts, and they are meant to be so. I am not
setting up emotion above principle, or fancying that there can be
religion without theology; but for what are all our thoughts about
God given us?
_(a)_ That they may influence our hearts.
_(b)_ That they may subdue our wills.
_(c)_ That they may mould our practical life.
If they do not do that--then _what_ do they do?
They constitute a positive hindrance--like the dead lava-blocks that
choke the mouth of a crater, or the two deposits on the bottom of a
boiler, soot outside and crust inside, which keep the fire from
getting at the water. They have lost their power because they are so
familiar. They are weakened by not being practised. The very organs
of intelligence are, as it were, ossified. Self-complacency lays
hold on the possession of these ideas and shields itself against all
appeals with the fact of possessing them. Many a man mistakes, in
his own case, the knowledge of the truth for obedience to the truth.
All this is seen in everyday life, and with reference to all manner
of convictions, but it is most apparent and most fatal about
Christian truth. I appeal to the many who hear and know all about
'the word,' What more is needed? That you should do what you know
('Be not hearers only'); that you should yield your whole being to
Christ, the living Word.
II. Balaam is an example of convictions which remain inefficacious.
It was not without some sense of his own character, and some
forebodings of what was possibly brooding over him, that he uttered
these words of the text. But they were transitory emotions, and they
I suppose that every man who hears the gospel proclaimed is, at some
time or other, conscious of dawning thoughts which, if followed,
would lead him to decision for Christ. I suppose that every man
among us is conscious of thoughts visiting him many a time when he
least expects them, which, if honestly obeyed, would work an entire
revolution in his life.
I do not wish to speak as if unbelieving men were the only people
who were unfaithful to their consciences, but rather to deal with
what is a besetting sin of us all, though it reaches its highest
aggravation in reference to the gospel.
Such stings of conviction come to us all, but how are they deadened?
_(a)_ By simple neglect. Pay no attention to them; do not do
anything in consequence, and they will gradually disappear. The
voice unheard will cease to speak. Non-obedience to conscience will
in the end almost throttle conscience.
_(b)_ By angry rejection.
_(c)_ By busy occupation with the outer world.
_(d)_ By sinful occupation with it.
Then consider that such dealing with our convictions leaves us far
worse men than before, and if continued will end in utter
What should we do with such convictions? Reverently follow them. And
in so doing they will grow and increase, and lead us at last to God
Special application of all this to our attitude towards Christian
III. Balaam is an instance of wishes that are never fulfilled.
He wished to die 'as the righteous.' How did he die? miserably; and
(1) Because his wish was deficient in character.
It was _one_ among a great many, feeble and not predominant,
occasioned by circumstances, and so fading when these disappeared.
Like many men's relation to the gospel who would _like_ to be
Christians, and are not. These vagrant wishes are nothing; mere
'catspaws' of wind, not a breeze. They are not real, even while they
last, and so they come to nothing.
(2) Because it was partially wrong in its object.
He was willing to die the death, but not to live the life, of the
righteous; like many men who would be very glad to 'go to heaven
when they die,' but who will not be Christians while they live.
Now, God forbid that I should say that his wish was wrong! But only
it was not enough. Such a wish led to no action.
Now, God hears the faintest wish; He does not require that we should
will strongly, but He does require that we should desire, and that
we should act according to our desires.
Let the close be a brief picture of a righteous death. And oh! if
you feel that it is blessed, then let that desire lead you to
Christ, and all will be well. Remember that Bunyan saw a byway to
hell at the door of the celestial city. Remember how Balaam ended,
and stands gibbeted in the New Testament as an evil man, and the
type of false teachers. Finally, beware of knowledge which is not
operative in conduct, of convictions which are neglected and pass
away, of vague desires which come to nought.