The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 1


Chapter 29—Fiery Serpents

As the people journeyed from Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom, they were much discouraged, and complained of the hardships of the way. “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. 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.” 1SP 314.2

The murmurings of the children of Israel were unreasonable; and the unreasonable always go to extremes. They uttered falsehoods in saying that they had no bread nor water. They had both given them by a miracle of God's mercy. To punish them for their ingratitude, and complaining against God, the Lord permitted fiery serpents to bite them. They were called fiery, because their bite produced painful inflammation and speedy death. The Israelites, up to this time, had been preserved from these serpents in the wilderness by a continual miracle; for the wilderness through which they traveled was infested with poisonous serpents. 1SP 315.1

Moses told the people that God had hitherto preserved them, that they had not been harmed by the serpents, which was a token of his care for them. He told them it was because of their needless murmurings, complaining of the hardships in their journey, that God had permitted them to be bitten of serpents. This was to show them that God had preserved them from many and great evils, which if he had permitted to come upon them, they would have suffered that which they could call hardships. But God had prepared the way before them. There was no sickness among them. Their feet had not swollen in all their journeys, neither had their clothes waxed old. God had given them angels’ food, and purest water out of the flinty rock. And with all these tokens of his love, if they complained, he would send his judgments upon them for their ingratitude, and make them to realize his past merciful care for them, of which they had been unmindful. 1SP 315.2

The Israelites were terrified and humbled because of the serpents, and confessed their sin in murmuring. Moses was directed to erect the brazen serpent upon a pole, and if those who were bitten looked upon that, they should be healed. 1SP 316.1

Here the Israelites were required to do something. They must look upon the brazen serpent if they would live. Many had died by the bite of the serpents. When Moses raised the serpent upon the pole, some had no faith that merely looking at that would heal them, and they died. Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, were all anxiously engaged in helping their suffering, dying relatives and friends, to fix their languid eyes upon the serpent. If they could only once look while fainting and dying, they revived, and were healed of all the effects of their poisonous wounds. There was no virtue in the serpent of brass to cause such a change immediately in those who looked upon it. The healing virtue received by their looking upon the serpent was derived from God alone. He chose, in his wisdom, this manner to display his power. It was the faith of the people in the provision made, which was acceptable to God. By this simple means, the people were made sensible that God had permitted these serpents to afflict them because of their murmurings and lack of faith in him. If they would obey God, they had no reason to fear; for he would be their friend, and preserve them from dangers to which they were continually exposed in the wilderness. 1SP 316.2

The Hebrews in their affliction could not save themselves from the effect of the fiery serpents. God alone could save sinful, rebellious Israel, by his infinite power; yet, in his wisdom, he did not see fit to pardon their transgressions without testing their repentance and faith. They were required, by an act of their own, to show their penitence, and faith in the provision that God had made for their recovery. They, on their part, must act. They must look, in order to live. The act of looking showed their faith in the Son of God, whom the serpent represented. The lifting up of the brazen serpent was to teach Israel a lesson. They had presented their offerings to God, and felt that in thus doing they had made ample atonement for their sins. They did not, by faith, rely upon the merits of the Redeemer to come, of which their offerings were only the type. The serpent, made of brass to resemble the fiery serpent, was to be placed in the midst of the camp, lifted upon a pole. This was to show to Israel that their offerings, of themselves, had no more saving virtue or power than the serpent of brass, which was to revive in their minds the future sacrifice of the Son of God. So, also, their offerings were to be brought with subdued wills and penitent hearts, they having faith in the meritorious offering of God's dear Son. None were compelled to look upon the brazen serpent. All could look and live, or disbelieve the simple provision God had made, refuse to look, and die. 1SP 316.3

The requirements of God may not always be appreciated by his people, and many are unable to understand the dealings of God with them; yet it is not their part to question the purposes of God, but to yield submissive obedience; for God has a purpose in all his requirements, which we may not fully see here, but shall see hereafter. 1SP 317.1

Israel had been preserved by a miracle of God's mercy during every day of their travels in the wilderness. The mighty Angel who went before them was the Son of God. He evened their path, so that their feet did not swell. It was the Majesty of Heaven who subdued and restrained the strong and dangerous beasts of the forest, as well as the poisonous serpents that infested the wilderness. The children of Israel did not realize the thousand dangers they were preserved from in their travels, because they were kept from them. They had hard hearts of unbelief, and were unreconciled to be guided and controlled by God. They imagined evils. They dwelt upon the dangers which threatened them, although they experienced them not. The Lord permitted the serpents to distress them, that they might realize how much they might have suffered if God had not mercifully encompassed them, and preserved them from affliction and death. The Lord had just given them a wonderful victory over their enemies, in answer to prayer. The Lord proved them, to see if they would look to him, and trust in him, if brought into strait places. But they did not stand the test; they complained of God, and of Moses’ killing them with hunger. The Lord punished them, by permitting the death they had complained of to come upon them. 1SP 318.1

The brazen serpent, lifted upon a pole, illustrates the Son of God, who was to die upon the cross. The people who are suffering from the effects of sin can find hope and salvation alone in the provision God has made. As the Israelites saved their lives by looking upon the brazen serpent, so sinners can look to Christ and live. Unlike the brazen serpent, he has virtue and power in himself to heal the suffering, repenting, believing sinner. Christ says of himself, “And 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.” 1SP 318.2