By J.R. Miller
"They began to murmur against God and Moses. "Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?" they complained. "There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this wretched manna!" Numbers 21:5
When the time came at last for the people to go into the land of promise, they found the way blocked. The Edomites refused to allow them to go through their country, which was the direct route, and they were compelled to make a long detour, going around the land of Edom instead of across it. Besides being long, this way was also very hard, being through sandy wastelands. The people got discouraged, and hence the murmuring.
It certainly seemed a most unnecessary piece of journeying. A glance at the map will show us that from Kadesh-barnea over into Canaan was only a short distance, while the route the people had to take led them by a long and circuitous course. What made all this harder, was that it was made necessary by the unbrotherliness of a brother. Edom would not allow Israel to pass through his country. Moses asked this favor courteously, offering to pay for everything the people used--but the king refused, and in a very surly fashion, too, to permit them to pass through his country on any terms or conditions whatever.
Very often in the experiences of life, this same thing happens; brothers are disobliging to brothers, refusing to be kind, and thus make their burdens heavier. There are many who constantly make life harder for others by their selfishness. This is not right. Life is hard enough at the best, for most people--and it should be our desire and effort to bear one another's burdens, certainly never make burdens for others.
It is not surprising that the people "were much discouraged because of the way." "The Arabah was a stony, sandy, almost barren plain, and subject to sandstorms. It was not, however, merely the heat and drought and ruggedness of the route which depressed them--but the fact that they were marching directly away from Canaan, and knew not how they were ever to reach it." We cannot blame the Israelites for feeling discouraged because of the way. Yet we may say frankly, that they should not have given away to the depressing feeling. Nothing was gained by this. It did not make the way any smoother. It caused no flower to grow in the path. It spread no shelter over their heads to ward off the sun's fierce heat. It did not shorten the long road. It did not soften the hearts of the unbrotherly Edomites and make them relent. It only made the people themselves less fit for the hard journey, less brave, less able to bear the strain!
When we find ourselves in hard conditions which we cannot ameliorate, the best way always is to face them with courage and energy. They have got to be mastered, unless we mean to consent to be beaten; and there is no use wasting time and strength in fretting over them. Beaten, defeated--we never should consent to be; and therefore the only right thing to do, is to stand like a rock. Only those who overcome win the prizes of life. These prizes lie always beyond battle lines.
In the letters to the seven churches, in the Book of Revelation, only those who overcome reach the rewards and blessings of spiritual life. We need ever to be strong--if we would be victorious. Discouragement does not nerve us with strength; it only makes us weak and less able to be overcomers. A discouraged man never can be a hero. The moment we allow ourselves to let discouragement into our hearts--we have opened our fortress gates to a traitor who will betray us!
Besides, there never is any real need for discouragement. At least, there would not be--if we could see things as God sees them. He never allows any of His children to be tried above that which they are able to bear. The troubles are hard--but the grace is always sufficient.
The thing we think we cannot master--we can conquer with God's help. Nothing is impossible to one who is working with God. The difficulty or the hardship that looks to us unconquerable, we can put under our feet if we meet it in Christ's name.
We should learn to sing in the most disheartening conditions, in the dreariest ways of life. We should be absolutely undiscourageable. There will always be experiences in which we seem to fail. Jesus appeared to fail when He was arrested and led to His cross. But it was not real failure. The resurrection on Easter morning was the end of what seemed utter defeat on Good Friday. There is no need, therefore, in any experience for yielding to discouragement. The way may be very hard for us--but if we are God's children nothing can go really wrong with us, unless we fall into sin.
We see in this story to what discouragement led. "The people spoke against God, and against Moses." At first the discouragement was only a depressed feeling--but it grew until it became bitterness, bitterness against Moses and against God. Perhaps we have not thought of discouragement as a sin, or as leading to such sins as we find growing here as its ripe fruit. We think of it as a quite harmless mood, a mood into which it is quite natural and very easy to fall. Some people seem even to enjoy it, as if it were a luxury. They would rather be murmuring than singing, complaining than rejoicing.
They begin early in the morning. They did not sleep well last night, they tell you at breakfast. They heard the clock strike every hour. The weather is wretched, too warm or too cold, too wet or too dry. The breakfast is not palatable. The oatmeal is not cooked well. The cream is garlicky. The eggs are boiled too hard. The coffee is too weak or too strong. All day, this monotone of murmuring goes on--now about things, now about people. Nothing ever goes quite right. There is a modifying "but" to every sentence of approval that is spoken. The clearest sky is spoiled by a speck of cloud which they find somewhere. Nothing that either God or man does, is altogether satisfactory.
People who live in this way, do not imagine that they are sinning. They think of themselves as deserving of compassion. They do not dream of their incessant complaining as being grievous wickedness before God! But so it is. It was to punish such murmuring as thousands of Christians engage in continually, that God sent the fiery serpents. The evil all came, too, from yielding to the feeling of discouragement. Discouragement is sin. It is temptation yielded to. Here we see its baleful ripe fruit!
Punishment followed. The Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and the serpents bit them. Of course, God does not always send fiery serpents when He hears any of His children murmuring. If He did, serpents would be rather numerous. Yet murmuring is no less a sin with us--than it was in the wilderness, and murmuring always brings penalty in some form. It is sin, and sin is like a fiery serpent. Its fangs leave poison in the blood. Its venom proves fatal--if there is no antidote found!
Discouragement has penalties of its own. It lowers the tone of the life in every way. It poisons the blood. The eye is less clear. The brain is less vigorous. The heart pulses less normally. The discouraged man is sick. He has lost his enthusiasm. His courage is gone, and he is timid and fearful. He is no more the force he was in the world.
He is not the same man in his home. His wife misses the brightness and boyishness that used to make his presence such a fountain of gladness. She wonders what is wrong, and thinks he is not going to live long. His children miss the playfulness that used to make them watch so eagerly for his home-coming in the evening. They were sure then of a royal time in romp and frolic. Now he comes in wearily and without any of the old-time gladness. He is too tired now to play with them. He is even disagreeable sometimes, showing impatience and irritability. He is not the same man anywhere he used to be.
He is not the same in business. Things are running down in his office or store or shop. Unless there is a change, the end will be disastrous. In his Christian life, too, a similar tendency is apparent. The old-time enthusiasm is gone. He is no longer the joyous, optimistic Christian he was. He has given up many of his church activities. His voice is not heard in the meetings. He is missed from the services. He is no longer the force he once was in good works.
He is a discouraged man, and his discouragement has robbed him of the things that formerly made him a blessing in the community.
The many deaths from the bites of the serpents, alarmed the Israelites, and they came to Moses with confession. Penitence wakes people up to a consciousness of their guilt. A great many people go on in evil ways, never thinking of the wickedness they are committing, until they find themselves suffering the evils of their sins, enduring the penalties of broken law. Then they begin to cry for forgiveness.
Moses became the intercessor for the people, asking the Lord to take away the serpents. It is a good thing when one has gone astray, falling into sin, or when one has trouble--to have a friend to whom to go, who will listen to the confession or to the burden of sorrow, and then go to God in supplication. We need human helpers, and never can be thankful enough for them. But we have a greater Intercessor than any human friend could be. "If any man sins--we have an Advocate with the Father." Jesus Christ is our Advocate. He is human, and thus can enter into our experiences. He is Divine, and thus can reach up to God for us. We should seek always to have Christ as our Mediator.
It was a strange method of cure, that the Lord provided--a bronze serpent, set up on a pole. Then everyone who was bitten, when he looked at the image of the serpent, was healed. This was the way God answered the prayer of Moses for the people's forgiveness. He did not take away the serpents--but he provided a cure for their bite. They must lift up their eyes and look towards the serpent on the pole, thus exercising their faith. This illustrates the way of salvation. God did not take sin out of the world--but he sent Jesus Christ to be a Savior of sinners.
Jesus made use of this strange incident in the wilderness, as an illustration of the salvation which He had brought into the world. He said: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life." As the serpent was lifted up so high that it could be seen from every part of the camp, so Christ was lifted up on the cross, that from any part of the world, where a sinner becomes conscious of guilt, the Redeemer can be seen.
We can imagine the bitten people, in the agonies of death, when told about the serpent on the pole and how they could be healed, turning their feeble eyes towards the wonderful image, and at once feeling a thrill of life in their veins. So whenever a dying sinner turns his eyes towards Christ on His cross--he feels instantly in his soul the arresting of the tides of sin and the beginnings of life eternal.