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destroys us with folly, insolence and self-indulgence; if we fail, we are undone through shame, chagrin and resentment; if we shun the rock of “vanity" on the one side, we are sucked into the whirlpool of "vexation of spirit" upon the other. The history of Israel is, in truth, the history of human nature.
Did they discover a stubbornness which no calamity could tame, no kindness could mollify: a levity which no steadiness of discipline could fix, a perfidiousness which no plea can excuse, an ingratitude which no partiality can extenuate, a stupidity which no intelligence can account for, a timidity and a rashness which no reason can explain? Alas, we need not travel to the deserts of Arabia, nor look back to the days of the golden calf, nor of the waters of Meribah, for the persons who discovered such a spirit. We have but to look into our own hearts, we have but to review our own lives, in order to be satisfied, that such a spirit has existed, that it is shamefully odious in itself, highly offensive in the sight of God, and that we have good reason to abhor ourselves, “and repent in dust and ashes."
We have pursued the history of Aaron and of Balaam in a continued series, that we might prosecute the remainder of the history of Moses, without any farther interruption : we therefore omitted in its proper place that portion of it, which is partly recorded in the verses I have read: but it is of infinitely too great importance to be passed over wholly in silence, and therefore we look back, and bring it into view, as an useful subject of meditation this evening.
Moses had lately descended from Mount Hor, whither he had been summoned to perform the last offices of humanity to Aaron, his brother : with mixed emotions, no doubt, which alternately marked the man and the believer : mourning and mortified, yet patient, composed and resigned to the will of Heaven. In executing sentence of death upon his brother, he heard the voice of God again pronouncing his own doom ; a doom in which, with the ordinary feelings of humanity, he acquiesces with reluctance, but must however acquiesce. But though death was before his eyes, and could be at no great distance, it abates nothing of his ardour for the glory of God, and the good of Israel ; it breaks in upon no duty of his station, it disturbs not the benevolence, gentleness and serenity of his temper : he lives, acts, instructs to the very last; and exhibits an instructive example of that happy firmness and equanimity of soul, removed alike from stoical indifference, and contempt of death, and fond, infirm, unreasonable attachment to life. We find him accordingly in his 120th year, and the last of his life, not only engaged in employments suitable to age, those of deliberating, advising and instructing ; hut exerting all the activity and vigour of youth, in planning and executing sundry military enterprises.
We should be surprised, did we not know the cause of it, to find Israel in the fortieth year from their deliverance out of Egypt, just where we saw them the first month, by the way of the Red Sea, journeying from mount Hor; and even then, though every thing seemed to be pressing them forwards to the possession of Canaan, not led of their heavenly Guide directly forwards in the nearest tract, but obliged to fetch a compass round the whole land of Edom, the possession allotted to, and already bestowed upon the posterity of Esau. But Israel, and in them mankind, was thereby instructed to revere the destinations of Providence, to respect the rights, property and privileges of others : that reason and religion, as well as sympathy and humanity, oblige a man to submit to the inconveniency of a journey somewhat more tedious and fatiguing, instead of attempting to cut a nearer passage for himself, through the bowels and blood of his brother.
The consciousness of having acted well, in taking this circuitous march
round the land of Edom, and that they thus acted by the command of God, ought to have reconciled the minds of these Israelites to the little incon-, vediences of the way; but their bistorian and leader, with his usual fidelity, informs us, that “the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way."
Men frequently do their duty with so ill a grace, that it becomes as offensive as downright disobedience; the manner of compliance has the air of a refusal. God loves cheerfulness in every thing; a cheerful, liberal giver ; a cheerful, thankful receiver ; a cheerful, active doer ; a cheerful, patient sufferer. And what an alleviating consideration is it, under the pressure of whatever calamity! “ This burden is imposed on me by the hand of my heavenly Father; this is a sore evil, but God can turn it into good.” " This affliction is not joyous, but grievous ; nevertheless, afterwards it shall yield the peaceable froits of righteousness." When we are out of humour at one thing we are dissatisfied with every person, and every thing ; a harsh spirit and a hasty tongue spare neither God nor man. “ The people spoke 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.”
Objects viewed through the medium of passion, like those strange, uncouth appearances which are seen in glasses of a certain construction, have little or no resemblance to what they are in nature and truth. They are distorted and disfigured; magnified to such a degree as to become hideous, or diminished so as to become imperceptible; and according to the fit of the moment, men turn the one end or the other of the perspective to the eye, and what they contemplate is accordingly removed to a great distance, and reduced to nothing, or brought nigh, enlarged, and brightened up. Employing this false kind of optics, Israel now considers Egypt and all its hardships with desire and regret, and looks forward to Canaan with coldness and distrust. The miraculous stream that followed them from the rock is no water at all, and manna, angel's food, is accounted light bread. We are too little aware of the sinfulness and folly of discontent, and therefore indulge in it without fear or reserve. We do not reflect that it is to arraign at once the wisdom and goodness of God : to rob him of the right of judgement, and madly to increase the evil which was too heavy before.
In general, the righteous Governor of the world permits this evil affection to punish itself; and can there be a greater punishment, than to leave a sullen, dissatisfied wretch to devour his own spleen ? But in the instance before us, he was provoked to superadd to this mental plague, a grievous external chastisement. " And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and much people of Israel died." These might be the natural production of the wilderness, but providentially armed for the occasion with a greater malignancy of poison, or produced in greater abundance or roused to a higher degree of ferocity. For what are the instruments which God employs to avenge himself of his enemies? He needs not to create a new thing in the earth; the simplest creature can do it. Nature, animate and inanimate, is ready to take up his quarrel ; the frost or the fire, continued a little longer, or rendered a little more intense, will soon subdue the proudest of his adversaries. It is not the least of the miracles of divine mercy, that Israel had been preserved so long from the fury of those noxious insects with which the desert swarmed, as Moses justly remarks in recapitulating the history of God's goodness to that people during a forty years pilgrimage. “Lest thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage ; who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water ; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of fint.' The rage
of these dreadful creatures, which had been during so long a period by a supernatural power suppressed, now freed from that curb, becomes a party too strong for a mighty host, flushed with recent victory. While therefore we adore and admire the goodness which multiplies the necessary and useful part of the vegetable and animal tribes with such astonishing liberality and limits those which are noxious with such consummate wisdom and irresistible power, let us tremble to think how easily he can remove the barrier which restrains the wrath of the creature, and arm a fly with force sufficient for our destruction. But the intention of God in punishing is correction and amendment, not ruin ; returning mercy therefore meets the first symptoms of repentance, and a remedy is pointed out the moment that misery is felt; which sweetly discloses to us the meltings of fatherly affection, outrunning and preventing filial wretchedness.
But what strange method of cure have we here? The poison of a serpent counteracted, and its malignity destroyed, not by an external application, not by the virtue of an antidote possessed of certain natural qualities, but by a blessing annexed to the use of an instrument in itself inadequate, and an action of the patient himself, flowing from his own will, and called forth by the appointment and command of God. The author of that excellent book, entitled the Wisdom of Solomon, has a beautiful reference to this story, when he says,
“ For when the horrible fierceness of wild beasts came upon these, and they perished with the stings of crooked serpents, thy wrath endured not for
But they were troubled for a small season, that they might be admonished, having a sign of salvation, to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law. For he that turned towards it, was not saved by the thing that he saw, but by thee, that art the Saviour of all. And in this thou madest thine enemies confess, that it is thou who deliverest from all evil.”+
But the grand commentary on the history of the fiery serpents is furnished by Christ himself, in his conversation with Nicodemus, ihe Jewish ruler. “ As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whosever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life."
From this it is evident that many particulars in the Jewish history and political economy, had an interest and importance which extended far beyond the present moment, or the sensible and obvious appearance of things. And in this particular instance our blessed Lord has furnished us with an instructive example, which ought to serve as a rule, for the application and use of figurative, allegorical, and typical subjects. Here he enters into no detail; pursues no parallel or contrast through a multiplicity of particulars ; furnishes no wings to the imagination ; but fixing on one great, general view of the subject, renders it thereby more powerful and impressive. He was conversing with a ruler of the Jews; was explaining to him the nature and end of his own mission; was deducing the nature and tendency of the gospel dispensation from the established rites of the Mosaic, and the received facts of the Jewish history, with which Nicodemus was perfectly well acquainted In this case he refers to a noted event, and appeals from it to one which was shortly to take place, betwixt which a striking line of resemblance should be apparent–The elevation of the brazen serpent in the wilderness, for the healing of the Israelites who were perishing by the envenomed stings of the fiery serpents--and the elevation of the Son of Man upon the cross, the propitia
Deut. viii. 14, 15.
7 Wisdom, ch, xvi,
Jobn, ii. 14, 15,
tion for the sins of the world ; that when this last display of the divine justice and mercy should be exhibited, Nicodemus, and every intelligent and honest disciple of Moses might be satisfied that “God had at sundry times and in divers manners,” presented as in a glass to the fathers, the method of redemption by Jesus Christ.
All the application, then, which the words of the Saviour himself warrant us to make of this passage to him, is reduced to a few obvious and striking particulars. “ Fools,” such as the Israelites in the desert, and transgressors of the divine law in general, “because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted. Their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw Dear unto the gates of death. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he saveth them out of their distresses. He sent his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destructions."'*
The root of the evil, the cause of the plague, is to be found in human perversity and disobedience. The faithful and obedient sleeps safe and secure in the lion's den ; to the proud and rebellious the innoxious worm is converted into a fiery serpent, full of deadly poison. The remedy for this sore evit is to be traced up to the divine compassion, power and goodness.
The means of cure are not such as human wisdom would have devised, or the reason of man approved ; they are the sovereign appointment of Heaven. The effect is preternatural, yet real: and reason rejoices in what it could not have discovered. The sight of a lifeless serpent of metal, working as an antidote to the mortal poison of one alive; incredible, absurd ! Such was the doctrine of the cross in the eyes of prejudice, and philosophy, “and science, falsely so called.” “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish, foolishness; but unto us which are saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wise ? where is the scribe ! where is the disputer of this world ? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world ? For after that in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews, a stumblingblock ; and unto the Greeks, foolishness : but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ, the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”+
The virtue flowed from the diviue appointment, operating together with the believing act of the patient. To the sufferer who averts his face, or wilfully and contemptuously shuts his eyes, that banner is displayed in vain ; no virtue issues from it, he perishes in his unbelief. To the despiser, the impenitent, the careless, Christ has died in vain. In the extension of all God's acts of grace to men, to produce the full effect, there must of necessity be an unity of design and exertion between the giver and the receiver, between bim who acts and him who is acted upon. Man's body is “ dust of the ground,” mere matter, separated from the spirit, incapable of motion or direction. Even that active, penetrating organ, the eye, is but a little lump of pellucid clay, till the vital principle, the breath of God, kindle its fires, and direct its rays. It is this vital principle which, proceeding from God, exists in him, and possesses the power of rising and returning to him. The believing Israelite hears, in dying agonies, the proclamation of deliverance, lifts up his drooping head, looks, and is healed ; his will meets the will of God, and the cure is already performed. The perishing sinner hears the voice of the Son of God and lives. Lifted up upon the cross he utters his voice, “ Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else."}
Psal. cvii, 17-20.
+ 1 Cor. i. 18-24.
Isa. xlv. 23:
One of his fellow-sufferers hardens his heart and reviles him, turns from the Saviour with disdain, and dies impenitent—the other hears with rapture the joyful sound, clings to the hope of salvation, prays in faith, and passes with him into paradise.
But the circumstance on which Christ chiefly rests, is Moses “ lifting up the serpent in the wilderness.” Moses probably had not a clear apprehension of the extensive meaning and import of the act he was performing, any more than the dying men who were the subjects of the cure. They looked no farther than the present moment, and for relief from a malady which affected the body. But, like the high priest in later times, they were prophecying, without being conscious of it. He was erecting, and the congregation in the wilderness contemplating an anticipated representation of the great medium of salvation, which God had appointed from the foundation of the world; and bad, in a variety of other predictions, circumstantially declared and described at different periods to mankind. These predictions were slumbering unnoticed, neglected, misunderstood, even by the wise and prudent, in the sacred volume a dead letter, till Christ, their quickening spirit, gave them life and motion, and a meaning which they had not before.
In the scene that passed in the wilderness we behold the shadow of good things to come, a prefiguration of the death which Christ should die. He is here “evidently set forth crucified before us,” according to his own words, descriptive of the decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem." "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
This same idea, we have just observed, had been suggested by the erangelical prophet Isaiah, and a similar expression is put into the Saviour's mouth by that harbinger of the Prince of Peace. “Look unto me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none else."
And in another place, speaking of gospel times, “At that day shall mao look to his Maker, and his eyes shall have respect to the Holy One of Israel.”+
Thus was Moses, by what he did, and Isaiah, by what he wrote, pointing out to the world one and the same great object, Christ Jesus, " the end of the law for righteousness ;" the substance of the types; the accomplishment of prophecy and promise ; the bruiser of the serpent's head; the restorer of defaced, defiled, degraded humanity. And thus we are taught to regard with peculiar respect, an event which Providence has, in so many different ways, rendered illustriously conspicuous; the death of Christ, on the accursed tree.
We shall have exhibited to you all that Moses and the prophets, all that the historian and the evangelist have suggested, on the subject of the brazen serpent, when we have led your attention to the impious and idolatrous use made of it in after times. That this illustrious instrument of Israel's deliverance in the wilderness, should be carefully preserved, as a monument of the divine power and goodness, and by length of time acquire venerability and respect among the other valuable memorials of antiquity, is not to be wondered at. But every thing may be perverted; and a corrupt disposition has ever manifested itself in man, to exalt into the place of God, something that is not God. Accordingly we find, about eight centuries from its original fabrication, even in the days of Hezekiah, the brazen serpent exalted to divine honours, and a besotted people rendering that homage to the mean, which was due only to the hand which employed it. The zeal of that pious prince, therefore, is worthy of commendation, who, in reforming the abuses of religion, which prevailed at the time that he mounted the throne of Judah, abolished this among the rest. Regardless of the purpose for which it was at first framed ;