He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan. (2 Kings 18:4, N.K.J.V.)
The story of Israel’s bronze serpent begins during the Israelites’ years of wandering in the wilderness prior to their entrance into their promised land of Canaan. You’ll recall that God first brought the Israelites to the threshold of Canaan only a year or so after their exodus out of Egypt (Numbers 13:1-33). He wanted them to conquer the land at that time, but the group of twelve spies who were sent into Canaan to scout it out brought back news that the Canaanite races were fierce peoples who dwelt in fortified cities. Even worse, the spies said that some of the races were literal giants. That report convinced the people to refuse to take the land, and that cowardice and lack of faith angered God enough to cause Him to decree that the nation would put in forty years of wandering before He would bring them back to Canaan for another chance to claim it as their own (Numbers 14:26-38).
According to the closing verses of Numbers chapter 20 and the opening verses of Numbers chapter 21, one particularly busy stretch of those years saw the following events take place:
- the death of Aaron (Moses’ brother and Israel’s first High Priest)
- the installation of Aaron’s son Eleazar as the new High Priest
- a pitched battle against the army of the Canaanite king Arad, a battle in which several of Israel’s soldiers were captured as prisoners of war
- a followup battle against Arad and his army, a battle in which God gave the Israelites a resounding victory
On the heels of all these significant events, the Israelites became what the Bible describes as “discouraged on the way” (Numbers 21:4, N.K.J.V.). This discouragement prompted them to speak against not only their God-appointed leader Moses but also God Himself. Specifically, they were tired of eating nothing but the manna that God sent them to collect from the ground each morning. As Numbers 21:5 says:
And the people spoke against God and against Moses. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread. (N.K.J.V.)
Such murmuring and complaining made the Israelites ripe for more chastisement from the hand of God, and He sent it by way of what the Bible calls “fiery serpents” that bit many of the Israelites and caused several of them to die (Numbers 21:6). At the very least these “fiery serpents” were some of the normal poisonous snakes of the area, but the description of them makes it sound as if they could have been somehow supernaturally energized by God. Whatever the serpents were, they had their desired effect upon the Israelites in that they caused the people to say to Moses, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us” (Numbers 21:7).
After Moses had prayed for the people, God did drive away the serpents. What remained, though, was the problem of all the people who still had the poison from the bites circulating through their veins. What was to become of those sick patients? God’s answer was to have Moses create a bronze serpent and set it up on a pole. Any Israelite who had been bitten by one of the fiery serpents and looked upward to the bronze serpent would be healed (Numbers 21:8-9). Centuries later Jesus used the story of the bronze serpent as a way of illustrating how He would one day be lifted up in dying on the cross (John 3:14-15).
Okay, end of story, right? Wrong. Rather than dispose of that bronze serpent as soon as all the bitten had been healed, the Israelites kept it and carried it around with them wherever they went. Even when they conquered Canaan and settled it many years later, they took the bronze serpent into the land with them. First, somewhere along the way they gave the serpent the name “Nehushtan,” which literally means “bronze thing” and is similar to nahash, the Hebrew word for “serpent.” Second, somewhere along the way the serpent was placed inside Solomon’s temple. Third, somewhere along the way they started burning incense to the serpent. We’re talking rank idolatry here! They took something good, a blessing that God had given them, and they made an idol out it.
It wasn’t until Hezekiah became the King of Judah, Israel’s southern kingdom, that the bronze serpent was finally destroyed. Hezekiah was a good king, and as part of his cleansing of his kingdom’s idolatry he broke the bronze serpent into pieces. That’s the happy part of the story. The sad part is that more than 700 years had passed between the time Hezekiah did that and the time Moses had first made the thing. Needless to say, that bronze serpent had far too long a shelf life.
The takeaway lesson for us is that we would all do well to ask God for the discernment to recognize when He is finished using some thing, some place, or some person in our lives. There’s a lesson here for our churches, too. Our congregations must resist the urge to remain chained to the past. Show me a congregation that isn’t using 21st century technology in its approach to ministry, and I’ll show you a congregation that has become far too comfortable living inside the confines of the wrong era. While our message about Jesus never changes, the methods by which we convey the message must sometimes.
So, tell me, are you right now hanging on to some “bronze serpent” that God would have you to move on from? I’m talking about some thing, some place, or some person that God once used as a great source of blessing in your life but now that usefulness is finished. Just as a good writer knows where to place a period and begin a new sentence, you should seek God’s wisdom in knowing where to place a period at the end of one season in your life and begin a new season. That “bronze serpent” that God once used so mightily in your life doesn’t have to become a “Nehushtan” that you worship. Like King Hezekiah, you can recognize when a leftover from your past has become a stumbling block to your future, and you can break away from the past by breaking away from the leftover.