Nehushtan: Just a Piece of Bronze
Written by Pastor Jim Law
We are often tempted to dismiss idolatry as a serious threat to our spiritual well-being. When we think of idolatry, we can easily retreat to Old Testament days and believe that it was their problem. We confine idolatry to the work of wood or stone, and thereby dismiss it as an ancient sin with no impact to our generation.
However, in the New Testament, idolatry is mentioned as a major spiritual peril for the believer in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul in no uncertain terms warned the Corinthians to “flee from idolatry.” (I Cor 10:14) Paul also placed idolatry in the noxious list of behaviors called the deeds of the flesh and as a root behind the insatiable appetite of greed. (Galatians 5:20; Colossians 3:5)
The Apostle John concluded his first epistle with this pastoral warning, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (I John 5:21)
God allows no substitutes. At times He permits certain symbols to represent Him, however He never allows these symbols to replace Him. God alone is to be the center of our worship.
Idolatry pollutes true worship and obedience as we create objects of worship that exalt other things as more worthy than God Himself. Idols that grip the heart come in many packages. A few of the popular include: power, prestige, education, relationships, money, business, addictions, religion, entertainment, popularity, ego, and pornography.
I want to return to the life of Hezekiah, king of Judah, for what I believe offers valuable insight in battling the sin of idolatry. Hezekiah was a godly king who implemented many reforms. Through the faith and courage of his leadership, the high places and pillars of idolatry were destroyed throughout Judah. His reform was thorough as the purge of idolatry even included “the bronze serpent that Moses had made because the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).” (2 Kings 18:4)
The Bronze Serpent
The bronze serpent of Moses was constructed and erected in the camp of ancient Israel some 700 years before Hezekiah. The bronze serpent which had been a symbol of God’s grace in the past had transitioned in the hearts of the people to an idol in which they offered misplaced worship.
It was called “Nehushtan,” a word which sounds like the Hebrew for both bronze and serpent. Instead of worshiping the true and living God, they stooped to worship the bronze thing.
The story of the bronze serpent is contained in Numbers 21. In the context of that chapter, Israel was in the period of the wilderness wanderings where they complained incessantly against Moses and the Lord. They murmured in their tents and rejected God’s instruction (Psalm 106:25). They complained about the journey; about the food; and about the lack of water. Beyond these grievances, in an appalling expression of ingratitude, they expressed that they missed Egypt!
In response to the complaining, the Lord sent fiery serpents among them, and the text says that “they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21:6) The term “fiery” may refer to the painful bite or the color of the snakes. Nevertheless, this was a serious judgment for a people who had rejected God’s care and provision.
The people had walked with Moses for some time now, and they knew that Moses had God’s ear, and that his relationship with the Almighty was intimate. The text indicates that “the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord and you; intercede with the Lord, that He may remove the serpents from us.’ And Moses interceded for the people.” (v. 7)
The Lord heard Moses’ prayer and instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. For those bitten by a serpent, if they would but look at the bronze serpent, they would live. (Numbers 21:9)
Grace for Idolaters
There are several take-away’s from the account of Nehustan:
1. Idolatry is devastating because it gets God wrong. What we believe about God is the most important thing about us and when we localize, limit, control, minimize the supreme sovereign of the universe it is no small transgression. The collateral damage of idolatry impacts generations. (Exodus 20:5,6)
2. Grumbling is serious and becomes a matrix for Idolatry. If we do not learn contentment and gratitude in life’s challenges, complaining can become a tolerated sin which can be deadly to our spiritual well-being. If we are not satisfied in God, we will look for idols that we believe will relieve and satisfy. John Piper helps with the summary of his theology, “God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him.”
3. A means of grace can become a stumblingblock. Every glance at the bronze serpent should have caused the people to reflect on the grace of God and to give thanks that His mercy endures even in our failures. But instead of lifting their heads to God Himself, they worshiped a symbol that could not save. Superstitiously, they groveled at a piece of bronze that was powerless to deliver.
4. Dealing with Idolatry Requires Verbs. Idols love to be nursed and coddled because they are birthed in our hearts which are idol factories. If we would be free from them it requires repentance and faith which leads to necessary action. Notice the verbs in the text of 2 Kings 18 as Hezekiah “…removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made.”
This is not a passive approach. Hezekiah removed, cut down, and broke in pieces the very idols that were plaguing God’s people. This was a disruption of the status quo, but it was what was needed for a return to true worship.
5. The bronze serpent was used by Jesus as a descriptor of His saving work. In John’s gospel Jesus references Nehushtan, “…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14,15)
Through Moses, the bronze serpent was erected for Israel to look to God’s grace and provision. We are often spring-loaded to do many things for God, but the Lord used the bronze serpent as a place for God’s people to look for His grace.
In the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus Christ, He was raised on a cross for you to look to Him, and believe on Him as your all-sufficient Savior. We are not to worship the wooden beams of the cross as some kind of lucky charm, or as a relic having power. No Nehushtans here. We are urged to look in saving faith to the One who died on the cross, and who has risen victorious from the dead. Look to Him who is able to forgive and redeem your life from every evil thing.