Snakes in the Desert

Have you ever been lost? I mean, ‘I don’t know which way to go’ lost? Marcia, Megan and I were visiting my brother who lived in San Diego at the time. Megan’s cousin, Angie, said we should all take a hike, and she knew the perfect spot. An hour later, we were on a trail head near Death Valley. That’s right, Death Valley.  There was a sign that read ‘People have died on this trail.’

Marcia bowed out about a mile down the trail and Megan walked her back to the car and air conditioning. I continued on and came to a stream that ran beside the trail. It looked cool and I could see stones glistening in the sun, so I took off my shoes and headed up the stream. It was beautiful and filled with discoveries.

I lost track of time and decided that I ought to head back to the cars and join the family but as I walked back down the stream, I realized I could not find where I had entered the water. Everything looked the same. Had I gone too far? Was the stream leading me away from the trail? By the way, there are no cell towers in Death Valley.

Thankfully, I remembered my scout training and sat down to wait so I didn’t make matters worse. The water was cool and the desert beautiful, so I just waited for a while. Then I heard voices. Voices of people walking the trail. I walked the stream toward the voices and suddenly, there was the trail.

But I could see how someone who became disoriented, could easily head off into the desert and in desperation make fatal mistakes.

It wasn’t long after our trip, that I watched a man lose his way in his marriage. In its own way, it reminded me of that desert. He had a good life, a good job and a good wife but he became distracted by some of the shiny things in life. He wanted to be a part of the ‘beautiful people’ and began to wander away from his upbringing and faith.

He woke up one day to find he had lost his way in his marriage. He was so disoriented that he began to head in directions that only made matters worse. Alcohol suddenly ruled his life. He ended up feeling trapped with no good way out and in the end, she left him. To this day, he is a lost man.

In our text, we will consider a people that were on the verge of losing their way. They had wandered off the path with no good way back but God would not allow them to stay lost even though finding their way back was going to hurt.

Let me ask you a question. Was there ever a people who saw so many miracles than the Israelites coming out of bondage? They had watched in horror as God reigned down plagues on the Egyptians yet spared them. They huddled in their houses on the night that the angel of death passed over striking the firstborn of all who failed to put the lamb’s blood on their doorposts.

There are times that I try to imagine what that experience must have been like. The previous plagues left no doubt that this plague would exceed them all. The streets in their land of Goshen were empty and quiet as they as the angel passed over. Slowly but surely, they began to hear it. A distant cry, no, a wail. The wail of a woman, no, a mother holding the lifeless body of her firstborn. The cries were few for most had taken the warning to heart and marked the blood. But a few had hesitated and now the agony of their mistake grew louder and louder.

When it swept into the land of the Egyptians, the shrieks of grief rose up like a raging fire. It seemed like the whole land of Egypt was crying out. An entire generation of their firstborn perished before their eyes. This plague broke the back of they Egyptians and they freed the Israelites and begged them to just go.

But the miracles were just beginning. At the Red Sea, they stood over a million strong but helpless against the sea. They had no boats and were not sailors, just slaves. The dust of the Egyptian forces rose in the distance and the Pharoah had a change of heart. I don’t believe he was going to take back these slaves but finish them once and for all in the waters of the Red Sea.

Who could have imagined the miracle that took place next? Not one among them, even Moses, had any idea that God was about to split the sea, provide them a dry route across and then destroy the armies of the Pharoah before their eyes. Who was this God that had freed them? This God of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob.

At the Mount of Sinai, God gave them a charter and a charge. They were to be His people and a light unto the world, and He would lead them. He did so with His very glory, the Shekinah of God. A pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, God’s glory would rise from the Tabernacle and lead the way into the desert and their promised land of freedom.

But how do you feed more than a million strong in the desert? Even there, the miracles of God continued with manna and quail. Every morning, a heavenly morsel sat upon every item. All you had to do was collect it and enjoy. Every nutrient needed was in that miracle bread. Every day, God poured out his miracles.

But the way had not been easy, and they had stumbled now and then. Their failure to enter the promised land was more the act of a slave than a free man. God was generous but this would cost them dearly. Out of that million strong, just the two brave spies, Joshua and Caleb, would set foot in the promised land.

After so many blessings, so many miracles, how could the Israelites have failed so miserably? The 21st chapter of Numbers gives us an insight into how these people became so lost.

It began with the simplest of human habits. Forgetfulness! I am not talking about forgetting where you laid your keys or even your spouse’s birthdate. I am talking about forgetting the blessings you enjoy till you don’t think about them at all. How could you forget about the Passover, the Red Sea, the manna and God’s fire? You ate the manna every day and the fire of God still burned before you.

The 4th verse gives us an explanation, though it is a weak one at best. They had become very discouraged. The desert was hot, they were living out of tents and each adult knew they would not enter that promised land. They were wandering in a desert, and they knew that they were going to die there.

They were human and still acting like slaves. They did what most people do when they don’t get their way and have to struggle. They take it out on someone else. They start to blame and then accuse Moses of failing them. They began to wander away and make foolish decisions. They had lost their way, and someone was going to pay for that.

Their question reveals their heart. “Why did God bring us into this wilderness just to die?” Passover, the Red Sea, manna and the Shekinah are all forgotten. They were lost and they didn’t know it.

That husband who lost his marriage had no idea that a little discouragement could be so devastating. What had begun with a few distractions led him to wander till he lost his way. Feeling disoriented and a bit trapped, he began to make foolish decisions. He was far off the path and only getting farther away.

Israel was doing the same. They had lost their way and now they had no heart for what must be done. What began with discouragement had festered into outright rebellion. They were ready to give up and go back to Egypt; back to being slaves. Some were ready to kill Moses and take matters into their own hands. Israel stood on the brink of disappearing in that wilderness.

The apostle would not forget their example when he encouraged the early Christians in Corinth. Some of them were becoming discouraged and losing their way. Paul reminded them in his 1st letter that ‘all these things happed as examples for our admonition or warning. I remember that Death Valley warning that people had died on this trail. That’s what Paul was doing. He was reminding them that what happened to the Israelites could happen to them.

I read another definition of what it is to be lost that gave special meaning to this text. It said that being lost was forgetting where we have just been and being unable to see where we are going. We are literally blinded by what is right in front of us. In our panic, we are disoriented and have no idea what to do so we do the worst thing that we can. Drained of our focus, we wander in the wrong direction to our death. Often those who perish while lost are less than a mile from safety.

Israel now gave a name to their discouragement. They were angry at Moses for the way they were being led and angry at God for the way they were being fed. Their anger at Moses rises from their own failure to take the promised land the first time. Now they would perish in that desert and Moses was not showing them any other way out.

The gentleman who lost his wife would grieve that she did not understand him and that he had a right to do what he chose to do. He was so blind that he could not see how he was destroying what they had.

But in verse 5, Israel cries out, “We hate this worthless bread!” Could there be anything more irrational or foolish? They were alive because of that bread and now they despised what was keeping them alive.

Such is the peril of being lost. It is not surprising that Jesus would refer to Himself as the Bread of Life come down from heaven. In Him is all that we need to feed our souls and yet some will lose their way and despise that bread of life.

The Hebrew writer warns us that it is possible for someone to taste the treasures of heaven and know the living Savior and yet lose their way. For some there will be no way back.

In the 6th verse, God acts to save this nation from extinction but the measures He takes are harsh. Like the plagues of Egypt, He reigns down an army of vipers to strike every living soul. We do not know the species of snake, but its bite was so venomous that it inflicted excruciating nerve pain before they would die.

Discouragement had given way to rebellion and God would not allow His nation to be destroyed from within. Now as then, God prizes our redemption far more than the blessings He pours out upon us. He would rather us enter heaven maimed than perish whole.

Solomon was right in his book of Proverbs. “The way of the unfaithful is hard!” Adam and Eve learned the hard way and we have inherited that same nature. The apostle James was right when he warned us that if we let our human emotions rule our lives, sin will be sure to follow and given enough time, it will kill our dreams, our spirit and in the end, our lives.

So, in the 7th verse, Israel comes begging. That serpent pain cleared their senses. They knew they had done wrong and the God who delivered them from Egypt was coming after them. Repentance came at a hard price but for those who have lost their way, sometimes it takes great suffering to bring them to their senses.

In what appears strangely odd that God calls for a brazen serpent to be raised upon a pole so that those who look upon it might live. There is no question that God sees their rebellion as nothing else than the work of Lucifer, the great serpent.

Sometimes God will give us over to our enemy when we have so despised His ways. He allows the serpent to sink its venom deep into our lives and the pain is unrelenting. How sad it is that such ‘lostness’ can begin with something as simple as discouragement.

They would look at that brass serpent and live but that did not guarantee that the snakes would cease their biting. Snakes after all are snakes and biting is what they do. There is no mistake that God is foreshadowing the death of His Son on the cross. That which was despised by man would be the symbol that would bring man back to his senses: a cross.

You and I treasure that most famous verse of John 3:16:

16  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.

What we forget are the two verses that precede it.

John 3:14-15
14  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15  that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

The same promise was given to them and to us. He does not desire that we should perish. He knows that we are lost in so many ways. He offers an answer to the pain that afflicts us if we will look to whom He has raised up. For us, that is Jesus, our Savior.

So, if you feel a little lost in life right now, do not worry. Just sit down for a while and remember who is leading you and who is feeding you. Take a deep breath and listen for His voice. It will take you back to the path He wants. And don’t let a little discouragement become something bigger. It can lead a whole nation astray so watch out for those complaints. Remember: There are snakes in the wilderness.


Lord of Mercy, we lose our way now and then. Our emotions get the best of us and we can say some pretty foolish things. Forgive us first for complaining because things didn’t go our way. Help us to deal with our times of discouragement with patience and peace. You did. Help us to do so. Amen.

Numbers 21:5-9
5  And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6  So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died. 7  Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8  Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9  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.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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