(For the first two installments on this series of brief, memorable insights, stories, parables, etc, in Scripture which are easily overlooked but jam-packed with meaning. For the earlier installments, go to www.joemckeever.com and scroll back to January, 2015.)
11) The “snake on a pole.” John 3.
In the brief incident told in Numbers 21, the story is presented without one word of explanation or interpretation. It takes all of 6 verses (21:4-9) to describe how the people grumbled against God and Moses, how the Lord sent “fiery serpents” to cause the death of many, and then how the people repented and Moses interceded for them, followed by the fascinating remedy God handed down. Nothing had prepared them for such a panacea for their ills: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole.'”
Then, the snake-bitten should merely look at it and live.
“Look and live.” That’s what He said.
“So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.”
There is no altar here, no sacrifice, no priestly intercession. Just a brass snake on a pole. A snake? Symbol of wickedness, the devil himself. What in the world could this mean, people must have wondered. But there it was.
End of story? It would seem so. Not a single word of explanation or application is given. All the Old Testament prophets, who had to have been familiar with the incident, ignored it also. No one seemed to have a clue about that story.
And then Jesus came. He knew.
In explaining Heaven’s plan to Nicodemus, this ruler of the Jews who knew the scripture backwards and forwards and prided himself on his conservative orthodoxy, Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:14-15)
Jesus looked at that story and knew what it represented: Himself dying on the cross. And the meaning of the snake? Isn’t the snake the very image of evil itself? “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in HIm” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
We can just see Nic’s eyebrows raised as he wondered what this meant. Then, sometime later–perhaps a couple of years–Nicodemus stood near the cross as Jesus died and gradually it all came together, it all made sense. This helps to explain what he did (see John 19:39). It took him a while, but Nicodemus “got it” too.
No other Gospel writer made that connection. It’s found only here. And what a profound discovery we have been given. A perfect (well, perfect as these “types” go) depiction of our Lord on the cross. Whoever “looks to Him” on the cross as their Savior shall live forever.
Two quick notes.
We’re told that as a young man Charles Haddon Spurgeon was troubled with his quest for salvation. He struggled with improper understanding, overwhelming guilt, nagging conviction, the harsh requirements of the law, and such. One snowy day, unable to get to his own church, he stopped in at a small congregation where the preacher had also been unable to make it to church. Spurgeon heard a layman bring the sermon from Isaiah 45:22, “Look unto me and be ye saved, all ye ends of the earth.” (Modern translations make that “Turn unto me.”) The simplicity of the gospel of grace penetrated Spurgeon’s troubled mind and Christ entered his heart.
As for that bronze snake on a pole, what became of that? In the 8th century B.C., when Hezekiah reigned over the southern kingdom of Judah, he cleaned out all the idolatrous practices and pagan sites. Furthermore, “he 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). (Nehushtan was Hezekiah’s putdown for it, roughly translated as “that stupid brass thing.”) The point is what God had given the people as a tool, they had made an object of worship, therefore it needed to go.
Don’t miss the time element. If Moses lived in, let’s say, 1500 B.C., and Hezekiah in the 700s, that “stupid brass thing” was a historical relic of the first order. But it had to go. It was in the way of worship, not helping it.
12) A unique prophecy of eternal life in Old Testament scripture: Psalm 17:15.
“But as for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Thy likeness when I awake.”
Here and there as we stroll through Scripture, we stumble upon “a treasure hidden in a field” (see Matthew 13:44). This is just such a buried cache.
The psalmist was bothered by something God’s faithful have questioned through the centuries. Many who ignore God and flout His laws seem to prosper. They live well, their kids grow up healthy, they lack none of the creature comforts everyone else longs for, and when they die (peacefully, at advanced ages, no trauma), they leave behind a nice inheritance for their heirs. You almost envy them.
The temptation to envy the prosperous wicked is dealt with in more detail in Psalm 73, climaxing in verse 17. “Until I went into Thy sanctuary–and then I understood their end.” These people may have lived prosperly and died peacefully, but now, their troubles have just begun.
Back to 17:15. But concerning my situation, says the psalmist, following my death, the news is all good. “I shall awaken.” “I shall see the Lord.” “I shall see Him in all His righteousness.” “And whatever that is like, I will be satisfied.”
I’ll take that any day of the week.
And there it is, smack in the middle of the Old Testament, given to God’s people a full thousand years before Jesus died on Calvary’s cross to make it a reality. This brings to mind 2 Timothy 1:10 where “Jesus Christ abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
This is a done deal, people. “It is finished,” said our Lord from the cross (John 19:30). “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
I shall see the Lord. (See how Job knew this and gloried in it, also. Job 19:26.) And remember too, this is found in the Old Testament, put there to say to God’s people through difficult centuries, “Look what’s in store for you.” Glory!)
Fear of death for believers? Not allowed, friend. Not for me, not for you, not for now, not forever.
13) Joshua’s call after 40+ years of waiting and waiting and waiting….. Joshua 1
Imagine a second-string quarterback occupying the bench for four decades, all the while waiting for the coach to send him into the game. Then one day, the call comes. He rises, stretches, looks around to see if he heard the coach correctly, brushes off the cobwebs, and tries to remember all the plays he has memorized. His moment has finally arrived.
No one is surprised when the coach reminds him to be strong and aggressive, not to shilly-shally, not to hesitate. “Be strong and of good courage” is how we have come to remember God’s instructions to Joshua as he steps into the breach to fill the shoes of Moses. Look at the times and ways Joshua heard those words….
In Deuteronomy 31:6, Moses tells the Israelites what lies before them and emphasizes, “Be strong and of good courage; do not fear or be afraid of them….”
In Deuteronomy 31:7, “Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, ‘Be strong and of good courage, for you must go with this people to the land which the Lord has sworn to give them….”
In verse 8, Moses says, “He will be with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
Wait. He’s not through.
In Deuteronomy 31:23, Moses inaugurated Joshua the son of Nun and said, ‘Be strong and of good courage, for you shall bring the children of Israel into the land….”
Then, skip over to Joshua chapter 1….
In verse 6, God is speaking. “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you. Be strong and of good courage.”
In verse 7, “Only be strong and very courageous…”
In verse 9, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage?”
Yes, Lord, you have indeed.
And then, as the chapter comes to a close, the people of God look to Joshua their new leader and repeat the same words to him. “We’re going to support you. Whoever rebels against your leadership shall be put to death. But as for you, be sure that you are strong and of good courage!” (1:18).
No one wants to follow a wishy-washy leader, one uncertain today and changing his mind tomorrow. “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare for battle?” (I Corinthians 14:8).
Pastors and other church leaders, always keep in mind this kind of strength and courage are functions of the Holy Spirit operating in the obedient, and should not be confused with natural talents for brashness, the gift of gab, and self-righteous assertiveness.
14) Jonathan was already somebody before David entered the picture. I Samuel 14:6
We Davidians (Davidophiles?) tend to forget that before he came on the scene and everything changed forever in Israel’s epic story, young Prince Jonathan was already a champion. I love this little incident from I Samuel 14.
Now, Jonathan and his armor-bearer–as a caddy is to a pro golfer, more than just a toter, but an advisor and assistant in everything, so was an armor-bearer–were restless. They were doers, not given to sitting in long meetings. If a problem needed addressing, they wanted to wade in and get it done.
So that’s how it happened that day when, unable to sit still for long and hating his father’s lengthy meetings with military advisors, Jonathan and his friend slipped away.. They would check on the pesky Philistines to see what they were up to.
That’s how they came upon a nest of Philippians who were taking their positions to ambush the Israelis. Perhaps the conversation went something like this:
Jonathan: “Let’s you and I climb up there and take them out.”
Armor-bearer: “You mean, the two of us? Just us?”
Jonathan: “Sure. We’re enough. After all, it doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or by the many!” (I Samuel 14:6)
Armor-bearer: “Do all that is in your heart. Count on me!”
About 20 Philistines met their Maker that day. And the rest of their army decided the omens were not right for a battle that day, and a hasty retreat might be in order.
King Saul discovered his son was a force to be reckoned with.
That’s a great line from Jonathan, isn’t it. “It doesn’t matter to the Lord whether He saves by the few or the many.” Not that most of us believe it. In my group, we Southern Baptists tend to think God can use only big numbers, large churches, huge offerings, rich and famous people, and that He needs tons of publicity and expensive promotions. It’s the rare believer who knows God can do mighty things with ordinary people, small classes, tiny churches, and the unknown obedient.
During these retirement years I love to tell church groups that according to texts like the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-33), when God gets ready to do something great, He loves to start small, use ordinary people, and take His own good time in doing it.
There is encouragement to the small group with little resources. You serve a great God!
15) Chimham, the youth who was given to the king. 2 Samuel 19:37.
When Prince Absalom led the full-scale rebellion against David and his reign, things looked bleak. David gathered up the remainder of his family and servants and under armed guard, they made their way out of Jerusalem and over the Mount of Olives and down to the Jordan Valley. 2 Samuel 17:27ff tells how the large group crossed the Jordan and were given hospitality by three of David’s oldest, wealthiest friends. There they remained for many days until Absalom was dead and the insurrection had ended.
In 2 Samuel 19, the group met up down at the Jordan to head home again. David turns to old man Barzillai who had been so generous in providing for the royal exiles. “Come go home with me,” David says, “and I’ll return your hospitality.”
Barzillai’s answer is legendary. “Sire, I am 80 years of age. I can’t taste food any more. I cannot hear music. I can no longer tell what’s good and what’s bad. I would just be a problem for you. However….”
Barzillai had a sudden inspiration.
“However, O king, here is your servant Chimham. Let him go with you. And do for him whatever you would have done for me.”
“And the king answered, ‘Chimham shall cross over with me, and I will do for him what seems good to you.'”
And that is the last we hear of Chimham, the young man given by Barzillai to the king. (Was this the old man’s son or grandson? A servant or the child of a servant? We have no way of knowing. We don’t know whether he was a child, a youth, or a young adult.)
But maybe we do hear from Chimham once more. In Jeremiah 41:17, we read of a group of people headed from Israel to Egypt. “And they departed and dwelt in the habitation of Chimham, which is near Bethlehem, as they went on their way to Egypt.”
Jeremiah lived some 400 years after David. And yet, here is a reference to the “dwelling place” (some translations have it) of Chimham “which is near Bethlehem.” That’s all. Nothing more.
Going from silence here, but with this Chimham being the only person of that name in Holy Scripture, here’s what I think happened….
David took Chimham back to Jerusalem, and as he considered what he could do for him, he remembered property he owned near Bethlehem. David after all was a native of Bethlehem, and would have inherited part of Jesse’s estate when his father died. (See I Samuel chapter 16 for the setting in Bethlehem.)
I suspect that David gave Chimham property of his own from his heritage near Bethlehem. And to show how significant that was, four centuries later some of his descendants still live there and the community goes by the name of Chimham. Chimhamville?
If this is the case, the little story is a powerful reminder of the longterm effect we have when we bring a child to the king. A child to “the King.” We have forever changed the destiny of his lineage.