Then the people of Israel set out from Mount Hor, taking the road to the Red Sea to go around the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient with the long journey, and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!”
So the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died. Then the people came to Moses and cried out, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” So Moses prayed for the people.
Then the Lord told him, “Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” So Moses made a snake out of bronze and attached it to a pole. Then anyone who was bitten by a snake could look at the bronze snake and be healed!
Psalm 78 reveals the sources of Israel’s complaining: (1) their spirits were not faithful to God (verse 8); (2) they refused to obey God’s law (verse 10); (3) they forgot the miracles God had done for them (verse 11). Our complaining often has its roots in one of these thoughtless actions and attitudes. If we can deal with the cause of our complaining, it will not take hold and grow in our lives.
God used venomous snakes to punish the people for their unbelief and complaining. The Desert of Sinai has a variety of snakes. Some hide in the sand and attack without warning. Both the Israelites and the Egyptians greatly feared snakes. A bite by a poisonous snake often meant a slow death with intense suffering.
When Jesus came, he brought a fuller meaning to this snake on a pole. Jesus explained to Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life” (John 3:14, 15). Just as the Israelites were saved from death by looking at the snake on the pole, all believers today can be saved from the deadly effects of sin by looking to Jesus on the cross. It was not the snake that healed the people, but God healed those who trusted that God could heal them. They demonstrated their faith by obeying God’s instructions. In the same way, we should continue to look to Christ (see Hebrews 12:2).
Often we question God about the suffering and sin we see and experience. Just like the Hebrews, those questions should drive us to cry out to God. But God didn’t just “take away the snakes”; God went beyond their request and brought healing. God uses all things—even suffering and sin—for our good, by shaking us free from what we’re holding on to so that we can more deeply hold on to him. What are you holding on to today? Take hold of God instead.