Gaebelein's Annotated Bible
And when king Arad the Canaanite, which dwelt in the south, heard tell that Israel came by the way of the spies; then he fought against Israel, and took some of them prisoners.CHAPTER 21
Murmuring and Conquest
1. Opposition of King Arad (Numbers 21:1-3)
2. Murmuring and the fiery serpents (Numbers 21:4-7)
3. The serpent of brass (Numbers 21:8-9)
4. Journeying and singing again (Numbers 21:10-20)
5. Sihon and Og (Numbers 21:21-35)
The first victory is here recorded. The Lord delivered Canaanites into the hands of Israel, and according to their vow they utterly destroyed them and their cities.
But in spite of this victory the people became again discouraged because of the way, and they spoke against God and against Moses. “Our soul loatheth this light bread.” Here we may trace our own individual experience. As one has said, “A time of victory has to be watched, lest it be a precursor of danger. A time of defeat on the other hand constantly prepares one for a fresh and greater blessing from God. so rich is His grace.”
The punishment by the fiery serpents follows. Jehovah provided a remedy in the serpent of brass, [“It is less easy to arrive at the interpretation of the serpent that was lifted up, in its purely symbolical character, that is, to ascertain the aspect which it presents, when regarded from an Old Testament point of view. The serpent appears to have been almost universally received by antiquity as a symbol of healing, or the healing art; this symbolization probably originated when it was ascertained that some of the most efficacious remedies of nature are precisely the most dangerous poisons. When we, accordingly, regard the serpent, in the present instance, as a symbol of healing, we obtain from such a view a bond of union between the symbol and the type; we are, also, enabled by this view to explain the fact that idolatrous worship was rendered to the brazen serpent till the reign of Hezekiah, who destroyed it” (2Kings 18:4) J.H. Kurtz] which was put on a pole.
“And it came to pass that if a serpent had bitten any man when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” Our Lord has given us the meaning of this remedy. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:14-15). The type is so simple and clear that we refrain from enlarging on it. Dr. Martin Luther in one of his sermons on John 3 made the following statements: “in the first place, the serpent which Moses was to make was to be of brass or copper, that is to say, of a reddish color (although without poison) like the persons who were red and burning with heat because of the bite of the fiery serpents. In the second place, the brazen serpent was to be set up on a pole for a sign. And in the third place, those who desired to recover from the fiery serpent’s bite and live, were to look at the brazen serpent upon the pole, otherwise they could not recover or live.” In these three points we find the typical character of the brazen serpent. “God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). “He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin” (2Corinthians 5:21). This took place when Christ was lifted up, when He hung on the cross. And now “there is life in a look at the Crucified One.” By His sacrificial death, life, even eternal life is the present and eternal possession of the sinner who believes on the Son of God.
And now we see them journeying on, healed and victorious. Nine places are mentioned. The last is Pisgah, from which they get a vision of the land and can look back over the desert lands which are now forever behind them. Two songs are recorded. Israel begins now to sing again. There were no songs in the wilderness, nothing but murmurings. The first time they sang was at the Red Sea, and now as they are nearing the land they break out once more in song. The first is a battle-song, which speaks of victory; the second song is on account of the water from the digged wells. Spiritually considered, the victory and the abundant water may well be brought in connection with Him who is typified in the brazen serpent. There is not alone life by faith in Him, but God gives us freely with Him all things. There is victory, there is the abundance of water, the gift of the Holy Spirit. The princes digged the well. But how? It was not a laborious task. They did it with their staves. It is the sweet picture of grace supplying the need. It seems as if the brazen serpent incident is a marked turning point. And in a future day the remnant of Israel shall look upon Him whom they have pierced (Zechariah 12:10). “Behold He cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see Him, and they also which pierced Him.” Then Israel will be healed, have victory and sing a new song. Read the song prophetically given in Isaiah 12. “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.” And then a still greater victory is won. Israel conquers Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og the giant-king of Bashan. Both typify the powers of darkness in the world in their resistance to God’s people. But victory is on our side because God is for us and with us.
Numerous critical points in the text we have to pass by. We mention but one in connection with the book of the wars of Jehovah. This book has been declared to be of different origin. The critics have made much of it by the fragmentary character of verses 14-16. Some state “that it is a work dating from the time of Jehoshaphat, containing the early history of Israel.” All these statements are mere theories and invention. The book of the wars of Jehovah was undoubtedly a collection of odes of the time of Moses himself in celebration of the wonderful and glorious acts of the Lord. These critical points and questions raised are of no importance whatever.