Topic: Expository Passage: Numbers 21:4–9
I like to preach a Thanksgiving sermon the Sunday before Thanksgiving because thankfulness is an important biblical theme. We honor the Lord when we thank him for his gifts. And we dishonor the Lord when we despise his blessings and complain about his provision.
The Lord has pressed this home the last few weeks as I have been reading the Pentateuch and especially the Book of Numbers. God graciously, miraculously, and abundantly provided for Israel. He sent 10 plagues to Egypt, he parted the Red Sea, and he provided food and water. But rather than thanking God for his blessings, what did Israel do? Again and again, they complained about God’s provision and accused Moses and God of being unkind.
It's striking that Moses emphasizes complaining so often because we don’t see it as a big deal. Instead, we complain all the time. I bet that most of us would be stunned if we saw a list of every complaint, we voiced last week. And since we all do it, complaining is often a respectable sin among Christians, meaning that you can complain often and not lose your “respectable Christian card.”
But the Pentateuch declares that complaining is a serious sin. It is both extremely arrogant, and it is always a slap in the face of God. Therefore, we must replace complaining with thanksgiving. To drive this home, I’d like to consider a most famous illustration of complaining (read). The passage begins by describing…
I. The Evil of Complaining (vv. 4–5)
Context: Obviously, Israel’s complaint was evil, but we can relate to how it came about. That’s because Israel is now in the 40th year of the wilderness wanderings.
As you can see on the map Israel has been moving around the region south of Canaan and west of Edom. But it’s almost time to enter the land; therefore, Moses asked the king of Edom for permission to travel through Edom on their way to Canaan. Moses tried to be kind, but the Edomites refused to let Israel pass and threatened to attack Israel if they tried.
It put Moses in a difficult spot because God commanded Israel not to fight the Edomites because they were brothers (Deut 2:5). That meant they would have to travel all the way around Edom to reach the Jordan. Imagine how discouraging that must have been for Israel.
But Moses obeys, and they begin a long detour. However, chapter 21 begins with the fact that almost immediately, the king of Arad comes down from Canaan and picks a fight. Thankfully, Israel cries out to the Lord, and God’s answers (21:3).
What an awesome moment! This was their first victory over Canaanites. Everyone was very excited. But great highs are often followed by great lows. That’s what happened as the Jews resumed their journey.
Complaint: You can imagine the frustration setting in. They’ve been wandering for almost 40 years based on the promise that God was going to give them a land “flowing with milk and honey.” They were the edge of the territory. Now they were travelling the other way around Edom. “How silly! We just obliterated Arad. Why don’t we do the same to Edom?”
And v. 4 says, “The people became impatient because of the journey.” Does that ever happen on your road trips? It’s hot, the people are tired of walking. A wagon wheel breaks, the sheep aren’t cooperating, and the kids are cranky. Probably just days after God gave Israel victory over Arad, the people forgot what God had done and began to complain (v. 5).
This was not Israel’s first complaint. In fact, they had a lot of practice. They took their first shot when the Egyptians were bearing down on them at the Red Sea (Ex 14:11–12). 3 days later they were at it again. Exodus and Numbers record story after story of Israel complaining against Moses and ultimately God.
What’s incredible is that every complaint was against the backdrop of God’s incredible provision. God parted a sea and killed an army. He made manna appear on the ground every morning. He made birds fall out of the sky. And he made water gush out of a rock.
However, sinners (including you and me) have an incredible capacity for forgetfulness and discontentment. And we can be dramatic about it. Notice the complaint in 11:4–6. It sounds like your kids talking about eating peas. They act like you are making them eat death. It’s ridiculous, but sometimes you’re no better. We know how to lay it on thick when we are complaining.
Before long, we deceive ourselves into believing our nonsense. Notice what they say in v. 5, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” You’d think that after 39 years of miraculous care, they’d be past that one, wouldn’t you? Or how about the next one, “There is no food and no water?” Moses is thinking, “You just collected manna this morning.”
But our complaints don’t have to make sense. So, right after claiming they have nothing to eat, they say, “We loathe this miserable food.” This is the most severe complaint we have recorded against the manna. They use a verb which means “to curse.” They cursed the very thing that God had miraculously used to sustain them for 39 years.
You’ve done something similar. God’s given you a warm, comfortable home, but have you ever lost it over some minor issue? Guys, have you ever yelled about the “stupid car” that carries you everywhere? Even worse, God has given you wonderful family and friends, but have you ever voiced a nasty complaint about all that is wrong with them?
Significance: We tend to dismiss these as irrational moments of weakness, but God doesn’t agree. Complaining is a serious sin for at least 3 reasons.
Complainers boast irrationally. We like to think we are really something. We think we have a right to be treated as royalty. We blame every conflict on others, and we can’t see our own warts. We deceive ourselves, we make ourselves out to be the worst victims of injustice, and then we throw ourselves a pity party. It’s childish and arrogant.
If you are going to cultivate genuine thanksgiving, it begins with seeing yourself as the broken sinner that you are. You are your biggest problem, and you don’t deserve anything from God other than condemnation. Thankfulness begins with seeing yourself as the undeserving sinner that you are. Only then will you rightly see the multitude of God’s blessings. 2nd…
Complainers forget God’s blessings. Psalm 78 offers some wonderful commentary on Israel’s unfaithfulness during the wilderness years. “How often they rebelled against Him in the wilderness and grieved Him in the desert!Again and again they tempted God, and pained the Holy One of Israel.They did not remember His power, the day when He redeemed them from the adversary…But He led forth His own people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock;He led them safely, so that they did not fear; but the sea engulfed their enemies” (Ps 78:40–42, 52–53).
God did so much for Israel, but they did not remember. So often we are no better. God showers us with blessing upon blessing. We sin, but God remains faithful. We forget his blessings and crave the things God has withheld.
Therefore, thanksgiving must be a daily discipline of your life not just an annual holiday. The question is not if God has given you abundant blessings; the question is do you see them and give thanks? Remember and rejoice in the blessings of God.
Complainers condemn God as evil. That may sound strong, but every complaint against God’s will is an attack on his character. Psalm 106 also reflects on the wilderness years, “Our fathers in Egypt did not understand Your wonders; they did not remember Your abundant kindnesses, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.Nevertheless He saved them for the sake of His name, that He might make His power known…They made a calf in Horeb and worshiped a molten image.Thus they exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass.They forgot God their Savior, Who had done great things in Egypt,wonders in the land of Hamand awesome things by the Red Sea…Then they despised the pleasant land; they did not believe in His word, but grumbled in their tents; they did not listen to the voice of the Lord (Ps 106:7–8, 19–22, 24–25).
The psalmist does a great job of pointing out that every complaint is an assault on God’s character. When you complain, you are not merely assaulting your circumstances; you are challenging God’s goodness.
Parents get this. When you do something nice for your children and they complain, you feel it in your soul because your kids are ultimately accusing you of not being good to them. It’s offensive. So, every complaint is an attack on God’s goodness. We must confess it for what it is, and we must replace it with faith in the goodness of God.
Yes, you may not see God’s goodness in every circumstance. The laments of Scripture teach that it’s okay to ask God what he is doing with a humble, submissive heart. But even when you don’t understand, believe in the goodness of God. Remember the evidences of his goodness. Refuse to complain and continue to trust him. Returning the story, Israel blew it, and v. 6 drive this home by describing…
II. The Judgment of God (v. 6)
The Serpents: As a kid, I imagined the “fiery serpents” as literally on fire. It’s fun, but it’s not true. What is far more likely is that a particular species of snake was known as “fiery serpents” because their venom made their victims feel like they were on fire. It was a miserable, agonizing pain that ultimately led to death.
So, these weren’t supernatural snakes; rather, there are several native snakes to the area that might be in view. One likely option is the carpet viper, which is common to Northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It probably bites and kills more people than any other snake in the world.
Whatever snakes these were, imagine the chaos as God caused a multitude of them to descend on the Israelite camp. They are aggressively biting people, and they can’t escape because they lived in tents. Some of you ladies can’t imagine a worse nightmare.
The Suffering and Death: But it wasn’t a dream. People are screaming, and the victims agonized while their bodies felt like they were on fire. And “many people of Israel died.” It was a horrible scene, and it probably stretched on for several days. Afterall, snake venom doesn’t kill people instantaneously. It’s a slow, agonizing process.
Terror, agony, and sorrow that filled the camp. And God did all of this in response to something we do all the time—we complain.
Have you ever been angry at God? Have you ever despised God’s blessings or been bitter about your circumstances? Have you ever said, “I hate my life”? Do you ever go days at a time without thanking God for his blessings because you can’t see any good in your circumstances? Maybe you are there today. Your heart didn’t resonate with the songs. You’re frustrated at life and frustrated at God.
Please admit that you are not just despising your circumstances; you are despising God. See it for what it is and repent. Yes, feel free to bring your questions to God. The laments of Scripture teach that he wants us to bring our confusion to him. Or talk it through with a godly Christian who can help you process. That’s good. But do not tolerate bitterness against God.
Then replace your bitterness with thanksgiving. God’s blessings are everywhere if you choose to notice them. We know Christ in the gospel, we enjoy overflowing grace, God abundantly meets our needs, he blesses us with family and friends, and on it goes. Make a choice by God’s grace to replace complaining with thankfulness. Returning to the story, Israel was in a dire place as they endured God’s wrath. But thankfully, the story isn’t over. It concludes with…
III. The Mercy of God (vv. 7–9)
Repentance: God’s judgment was severe, but it was effective. The people came to Moses and admitted, “We have sinned…” That may sound simple, but it’s one of the strongest confessions recorded in the Pentateuch. Israel agreed with God over their sin, and they specifically acknowledged the evil of slandering God and God’s servant Moses.
That’s what we should always do when we sin. Don’t make excuses, don’t blame shift. Call it what it is. Then they asked Moses to pray for relief.
God’s Instruction: God answers in v. 8. God promises mercy! He provides a way for Israel to escape death, but he does so in a very unusual way.
First, with most of God’s previous judgments, he simply cut off the judgment once Israel prayed. He removed the plague. But God didn’t immediately eliminate the snakes. Verse 9 implies that people continued to get bit even after Moses mounted the bronze serpent. I assume that God did this to force Israel into looking to him with faith.
But what is especially unique is that God commanded Moses to mold and mount a bronze serpent. That’s really odd because the snakes were not the cause of life but the cause of death. Why in the world would God want Israel to look to the cause of death in order to receive life?
As well, snakes are not beloved creatures. I know a few of you are snake lovers, but you’re odd. Most people hate snakes. And the Bible often describes Satan as a snake. In fact, snakes were cursed to crawl on their bellies following Satan’s deception of Eve. So, why would God want Israel to find salvation in looking to a cursed, despised figure?
The reason is that this bronze snake was a type of a coming and far greater source of salvation. Jesus made this explicit when he told Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up;so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).
We tend to romanticize the cross, but Galatians 3:13 states, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs onatree.’” Jesus was cursed because he took our sins on himself. There was good reason why the Jews struggled so deeply with the thought of a crucified Messiah. The idea was unimaginable to a thoughtful Jew.
So, when God commanded Moses to mount a bronze serpent, he foreshadowed the fact that ultimate salvation would not come in a stately, honorable form but through a despised Savior. God was saying to Israel that someday all people will need to look to a cursed Savior to find new life.
So, this instruction from God is of tremendous significance, and it beautifully binds together the story of redemption from the Old Testament to the New.
God’s Mercy: Well, Moses obeyed the Lord, and he had a bronze serpent made. Then they mounted the serpent on a pole. God promised anyone who was bitten that if they “looked” on the serpent they would “live.”
It’s interesting that God uses a verb for “look” that means to look at something with understanding and faith. Of course, God wasn’t calling them to ultimately trust in a snake; instead, the snake victims were to look at the snake with a heart of faith in God as the one who could ultimately save.
We do something very similar when we are born again. We behold the cursed Savior hanging on the cross, and we believe that he is much more than a humiliated criminal. We believe that he is the Son of God and that what he did there is sufficient to save.
And when the snake victims did this, God promised that they would “live.” Verse 9 doesn’t give any details, but it says that this is exactly what happened. Imagine a man who is agonizing in pain and nearing death from a snake bit. He looks at the snake with faith, and suddenly, the pain begins to fade as do all the other symptoms of death.
He’s amazed. Hopefully, he’s thankful! Hopefully, he praises God that not only did he heal my body, but he forgave my ungrateful heart.
I wonder if anyone here has never believed on Christ for salvation because you doubt the goodness of God. Maybe you are angry at God about some trial, or maybe you fear what Christ will demand if you surrender to him. Please see that you live every day under the sovereign goodness and grace of God. Every day he gives you more than you deserve.
So, repent of your ingratitude, your unbelief, or whatever else is in your heart and look to Christ. See him hanging on the cross, cursed with your sin, and trust that he is sufficient to save. If you do that, you can leave today alive in Christ. Jesus resurrection life can be yours giving you strength to serve him today and hope for life in heaven with Christ. Please receive Christ today.
Among those who are saved, I’m guessing that someone here is struggling with bitterness toward God. You may not call it that, but you are angry at God about the life he has given you or some aspect of that life. You may not even see it, but you are always irritable or just melancholy. You’re Eeyore. You are always blue, you only seeing what is wrong, and you’re pessimistic and cynical about everything and everyone.
Maybe it’s not that bad, but you complain a lot. You may not always voice it, but you see yourself as a victim, and you aren’t happy unless you have something to complain about. Please see that all anger, bitterness, and unthankfulness is ultimately directed at God. You cannot be angry at God’s sovereign purpose without being angry at God himself. If you are hurting, bring your hurt to the Lord like Job did, like the psalms, or like Lamentations. You might need a godly friend to help you think through it. Address it, and repent of your sin, and anchor your soul to the goodness and wisdom of God.
And then choose thankfulness and joy. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil 4:4)! “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:18). You can begin by giving thanks for the gospel of Christ. Jesus was lifted up as the curse for our sin. But he conquered sin and death. Give thanks that he drew you to himself, and that you are alive in him. Then make sure you notice every other blessing. God is good; it’s up to you to see it.