"And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way of the Red sea, to compass the land of Edom: and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way. And the people spake 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. And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people: and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us, And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived (Numbers 21.4-9)."
In reviewing the book of Numbers for accounts of absolute predestination we have come to the wilderness wanderings of the twelve tribes of Israel. About 38 years of Israel's wanderings are covered in the book of Numbers. During this time the tribes were often guilty of murmuring, complaining, rebellion, idolatry, adultery, and a whole host of other sins. All of this shameful conduct was recorded so that the children of God in this age might be instructed. "For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope (Romans 15.4)." We feel sure our text in Numbers 21.4-9 affords us a vivid example of this.
We doubt that anyone reading this account would deny that the Israelites' conduct was grave indeed. They spoke against God! They railed on Moses! Even worse, they accused Moses of trying to kill them in the wilderness. No question this was serious business. And, as if to emphasize their total disdain of the circumstances, they caustically conclude with, "...and our soul loatheth this light bread." A search of the whole of the Bible would not turn up an incident of complete ingratitude to equal this episode. Was this then a time of total disobedience, free-will run amuck, and events fully outside the plan and purposes of God? Or, could it be yet another example of the wise government of God in leading His children through a series of trials and tribulations for their ultimate good, and His great glory? We are persuaded it is the latter. It is surely a complete disregard of the whole scope of the Word of God to reject the sovereign rule of Jehovah over events such as these. Arminian opinion might boast in "free agency to sin or serve" but it cannot be sustained by the record.
Four simple questions are in order in beginning our analysis of these texts: First, "Was God ever in control of the affairs of Israel?" Second, "Had God lost control of events in this uprising?" Third, "Had God surrendered control to the Israelites?" Or, fourth, "Was God still in control, despite the seeming chaos choking all decency and order from the Israelites?" If the answer to question one is "no," then the next three questions are not necessary. If the answer is "yes," then numbers two and three must be "no," for number four to be "yes." If the answer to question one is yes and the answer to question four is "no" then, we ask, what force or circumstance, power, or influence, brought God to be without control? If the mighty God of Israel was at one time in control of their affairs, then how could He possibly not, at some later period, still be in control? Can our unchangeable God change from One of being in control to One of being without control? And all that without changing? God was in control, and all that transpired in this incident was in perfect harmony with His eternal plan to save His children from their sins.
There are two main areas of our text we hope to examine that we might show how all this was embraced in the absolute predestination of all things: the first is the wilderness wanderings, and the second is the brazen serpent.
THE WILDERNESS WANDERINGS
In order to show a pattern of rebellious conduct from the children of Israel while in the wilderness, we cite an example taken from the beginning of their journeys; an example very similar to our text at the heading. It will also show the necessity of absolute predestination to bring it to pass. "So Moses brought Israel from the Red sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water (Exodus 15.22)." Thus began their sojourn of forty years from Egypt to the land of promise. This land in which they traveled is described as a wilderness eighty-four times, beginning from their crossing the Red Sea, to the time of circumcision after they had crossed Jordan (Joshua 5.6). Forty-five of those references to the wilderness are found in the book of Numbers alone. It is striking to see that at the very outset of their journey, after only three days march into the wilderness of Shur, they were confronted with sore trials. They had no water and the first they found, at Marah, was bitter. Again, after leaving Elim and coming into the wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Sinai, they murmured against Moses and Aaron: "And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full: for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger (Exodus 16.3)." Clearly, these were a people given to bitterness and complaining. God, however, rather than serving up for them their worst expectations, and killing them there and then, served them bread from heaven (Exodus 16.4).
This bread the Lord served up to Israel in the wilderness was expounded on at length by Jesus, (John 6.22-59). "And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst (John 6.35)." We shall not at this time attempt to give a full exposition of John 6 and the bread of life, as interesting as it might be, but rather confine ourselves to one main point only. Jesus, plainly as could be, gave His hearers a comparison of the bread in the wilderness with His body. Now we ask, had there been no necessity for bread in the wilderness, would there have been a comparison to be made? These Israelites must have been just where they were, under the exact circumstances they were under, and say and do just what they did, or there would be no need of bread from heaven for them. Had they not complained as they did it would not have been necessary for God in mercy to supply them as He did. Centuries later Jesus said by way of comparison, "I am the living bread which came down from heaven (John 6.51)." He did not come down from heaven to become bread; He was that bread when He came!
There was a long series of events that led up to the giving of bread in the wilderness, a few of which we shall list:
1. The birth of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob;
2. The birth of the twelve sons of Jacob;
3. The selling of Joseph into Egypt;
4. The famine throughout the land;
5. The move of the families of Jacob to Egypt;
6. A new King in Egypt that knew not Joseph;
7. The bondage of the children of Israel;
8. The advent of Moses to deliver the Israelites;
9. The plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptians;
10. The expulsion of Israel from Egypt;
11. The journey to the wilderness of Sin;
12. The murmuring of Israel.
Is there a sinner so hardened against the absolute predestination of all things that they cannot see that every link in this chain of events was necessary? Not one event, great or small, nothing we might call good or evil, could fail to come to pass, or there could be no bread from heaven for these murmurers. If this event (the murmuring) had by some manner failed to transpire, then what of the pronouncement of Jesus that He was the living bread which came down from heaven? We conclude that from all eternity Jesus was the bread from heaven, and from all eternity He purposed to compare His body to the bread in the wilderness. It cannot be imagined that the Lord would purpose this comparison and then have that which it was compared to fail to come to pass. No! The events that led to the promise of bread for these wilderness wanderers were as sure as Jesus was eternally the bread from heaven. Either everything was certain, or nothing could have been certain. It could not be both ways.
We are sure it will be countered by some few bombastic Arminians that the wilderness wanderings were a result of the failure of the children of Israel to obey God. We are certain the opposite is the truth. Their failure to obey was a direct result of their wilderness wanderings, not the reverse. We return to our text in Numbers 21.4-9 to explain.
"...and the soul of the people was much discouraged because of the way (verse 4)." What led the people to be discouraged? It was, according to the text, the way. Obviously it was not the way which they would have selected; this was the way the Lord had led them. "O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps (Jeremiah 10.23)." Poor sinners may never in this life fully know why the Lord leads them the way He does, but that He surely does direct their steps cannot be successfully controverted. "Man's goings are of the Lord; how can a man then understand his own way (Proverbs 20.24)?" This was just as true when the Lord led His children into the wilderness by Moses as when Solomon recorded it centuries later. We are persuaded that man's goings, all of them, are absolutely predestinated to be just as they come to pass; what else could "man's goings are of the Lord" mean? "But surely, it does not include all this foul business the Israelites were guilty of in the wilderness" angry Limited Predestinarians will complain. Yes, that too! Probably as good a commentary as can be found on this subject is recorded in Psalm 107.
"They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way; they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them. Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distress. And he led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation (Psalm 107.4-7)." These were the people God had redeemed from Egypt. All this had been prophesied for centuries, so it must have been God's plan to so redeem them; thus it was His eternal purpose to do so. It was no accident they were wandering in a solitary way in the wilderness. God Himself led them there under Moses with strong evidences. "And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way: and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night: He took not away the pillar of the cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people (Exodus 13.21,22)." Notice well the expression, to lead them the way. God Himself led them there. In their wanderings they became hungry and thirsty, just as we have shown from our text in Numbers 21. Remember, it was God who led them to this circumstance, thus it was for His wise and holy purpose for it to fall out as it did. As one dear Elder used to say so often when preaching the unsearchable riches of God, "It looks like this is going to lead us right straight into predestination." And so it will.
"Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distresses." First, the Lord led them into the wilderness, and then the fainting souls cried unto Him. Predestinarians will, when blessed to see the great purpose of God in all things, thank and praise Him for every one of their wilderness trials, for it is there He makes bitter waters sweet; feeds them with bread from heaven, and delivers them from their distresses to feed on Jesus, the true and living bread. "And he led them forth by the right way." Religionists may bellyache and deny the force of this text, yet it is blessedly plain to the poor of the flock that when God leads His sheep it is the right way. Even when the sheep are seemingly out of the way, yet they are still being led the right way.
In concluding our appraisal of the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel, we propose this question. If the Lord led them by the right way, from the first to the last, and since it was all foretold centuries earlier, and since it all came to pass as God said it would, then could it have been other than it was? And, was there ever a time with God that He had not purposed to bring His children just this way, the right way (Psalm 107.7)? Surely it could have been no afterthought with Him Who changes not. Finally, is there a rogue so bold as to say the all-wise God of heaven and earth did wrong in leading His people into the wilderness, and then keeping them there for 40 years? If it was not wrong for God to so deal with them, then it was right, and if right, it was always right, even from eternity; and that dear readers, is the absolute predestination of all things. Even then, before Paul declared it to the Romans, "...all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8.28)."
THE BRAZEN SERPENT
"And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died (Numbers 21.6)." It is very clear from the following verses that not all the people that were bitten died, but much did. Had this been simply a sweeping judgment on the people as retribution for their sins then would they not all have died? But no; this, as all other afflictions the Lord sent on His children was more that just pure punishment for their murmuring. God was bringing His people along the right way, and as well providing instruction for us today. Incredulous! you say? No; not at all, as the following clearly establishes: "Neither let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents. Neither murmur ye, as some of them also murmured, and were destroyed of the destroyer. Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come (I Corinthians 10.9-11)."
We emphasize two things from the above Scriptures; first, all these things happened to them for ensamples, or as examples. This was not just a series of random events that a self-willed people fell into. All, everything that took place, had a purpose, and that being they were examples to both themselves and to others. Some, like the non-elect today, were left to die in their sins, but others, comparable to His chosen ones now, had a remedy provided them. This, we are sure, is the major example set forth by this incident. Second, this was written for our admonition today, or as the text says, "upon whom the ends of the world are come." He Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, eternally decreed all these things, and by His Spirit set them down in the Holy Scriptures for our admonition.
Now, if these Israelites had acted in some manner other than they did; if they paused, reflected, and turned from the desire to murmur, there would have been no need for the serpents of fire to bite them; hence, no ensample to record. But the Word of God tells us that, "For ever, O Lord, thy word is settled in heaven (Psalm 119.89)." Paul clearly told the Corinthians, and that by inspiration, that this was written for our admonition. This then was a portion of the Word of God that was forever settled in heaven! Could the episode with the serpents have failed to come to pass? Were not then the Israelites certain to do as they did? And again, if it was certain, was it not absolute predestination that made it certain? We know of nothing short of that which could possibly render things sure. We would remind the readers again that it will not do to suggest that this was only a case of God seeing what was going to happen and then acting in accordance. If God saw it, just as it was, and that from all eternity, then it was as certain as His perfect prescience.
"Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people (Numbers 21.7)." There was no need for sanctimonious religionists to rush in and harangue the Israelites for their transgressions. God's serpents did a sufficient job of both alarming them and bringing them to confess their sins. Their saying, "we have sinned" however, did not make them whole then any more than saying it today will. They needed Moses as an intercessor at that moment just as we need Jesus to intercede for us now. Moses did pray for the people as their mediator, and God was pleased to answer his prayer in their behalf. Unless one believes that prayer changes God's mind they must acknowledge that Moses prayed for God's will to be done. Now, to pray for God's will is to pray for what God has from all eternity purposed to bring to pass. Moses surely had no notion of pleading for an interruption of the government of God as it concerned these poor bitten sinners. It must be certain that Moses, guided by the Spirit of intercession, approached the throne of grace appealing for the manifestation of what God had eternally decreed for the moment. Moses prayed for their salvation from the fiery serpents and the consequence of being bitten. This was no "time salvation" nor a "conditional salvation" Moses sought for his brethren. He prayed for the only kind of salvation the Bible speaks of. "...but my salvation shall be for ever, and my righteousness shall not be abolished (Isaiah 51.6)." A for ever salvation must be one that can be traced from eternity; one that has its rise in absolute predestination. God had for ever planned to save these people from the fiery serpents, so He must as well have for ever planned to send the serpents, and so the murmuring that necessitated the serpents must have been just as for ever certain.
"And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live (Numbers 21.8)." As we mentioned earlier, some of those bitten had already died, thus we conclude there was no salvation from the serpents provided for them in the eternal plan. To say otherwise is to deprecate the wisdom of God in providing for His children from the foundation of the world. But, blessed be the name of the Lord, provision was provided for some of the bitten, just as there is now provision for God's elect from sin. Was the remedy to rescue the bitten simply an afterthought with God? Did God react to their actions, or was there a plan of provision already in place for those that cried to Moses for relief? We say there was a plan; and it was drawn up from eternity, making both the cause (murmuring) and the effect (the brazen serpent) equally certain. To say it as clear as possible, this account recorded in Numbers 21 was fully predestinated from eternity.
"And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3.14,15)." There are several facts contained in the above verses that lead us to believe that absolute predestination is the sure fountain from whence all these events flowed. First, Moses lifted up his brazen serpent under the direct command of God as a remedy for those that looked and lived. Even so, was Jesus lifted up. Second, Jesus was, according to the Word of God, "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13.8)." Before the world was framed the Lamb was certain to be lifted up; a position none but rank Arminians deny. Third, when Jesus drew a figure of His sufferings and death for believers from the lifted up brazen serpent, it established the episode in Numbers 21 as a certainty of equal antiquity with the eternal decree of His own lifting up on the cross. Who could, with baseless abandon, accuse the Lord of looking about for a suitable figure to employ during His earthly ministry? No! with unerring accuracy, He Who set the world in motion with the Word of His power employed an illustration that was as certain as the cross itself. Both events, the lifting up of the brazen serpent, and the lifting up of Jesus, compliment one another as well as the decrees of God. Without attempting to further multiply proofs, we assert with much thanksgiving for the truth of the matter, the absolute predestination of all those things involved in Numbers 21.4-9.
Volume 8, No. 4