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We do not reflect that it is to arraign at once the wif dom and goodness of God; to rob him of the right of judgment, and madly to increase the evil which was too heavy before.
In general, the righteous Governor of the world permits this evil affection to punish itself; and can there be a greater punishment, than to leave a fullen, diffatisfied wretch to devour his own fpleen? But in the inftance before us, he was provoked to fuperadd to this mental plague, a grievous external chastisement. "And the Lord fent fiery ferpents among the people, and they bit the people, and much people of Ifrael died." These might be the natural production of the wilderness, but providentially armed for the occafion with a greater malignancy of poifon, or produced in greater abundance, or roused to a higher degree of ferocity. For what are the inftruments which God employs to avenge himself of his enemies? He needs not to create a new thing in the earth; the fimpleft creature can do it. Nature, animate and inanimate, is ready to take up his quarrel; the froft or the fire, continued a little longer, or rendered a little more intense, will foon fubdue the proudeft of his adverfaries. It is not the leaft of the miracles of divine mercy, that Ifrael had been preferved fo long from the fury of thofe noxious infects with which the defert fwarmed, as Mofes juftly remarks in recapitulating the hiftory of God's goodness to that people during a forty years pilgrimage. "Left thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery ferpents and fcorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint." *
The rage of these dreadful creatures, which had been during fo long a period by a fupernatural pow,
*Deut. viii. 14, 15.
er fuppreffed, now freed from that curb, becomes a party too strong for a mighty hoft, flushed with recent victory. While therefore we adore and admire the goodness which multiplies the neceffary and useful part of the vegetable and animal tribes with fuch aftonishing liberality, and limits those which are noxious with fuch confummate wifdom and irresistible power, let us tremble to think how eafily he can remove the barrier which reftrains the wrath of the creature, and arm a fly with force fufficient for our deftruction. But the intention of God in punishing is correction and amendment, not ruin; returning mercy therefore meets the firft fymptoms of repentance, and a remedy is pointed out the moment that mifery is felt; which fweetly difclofes to us the meltings of fatherly affection, outrunning and preventing filial wretchedness.
But what ftrange method of cure have we here? The poifon of a ferpent counteracted, and its malignity destroyed, not by an external application, not by the virtue of an antidote poffeffed of certain natural qualities, but by a blefling annexed to the ufe of an inftrument in itself inadequate, and an action of the patient himself, flowing from his own will, and called forth by the appointment and command of God. The author of that excellent book, entitled the Wisdom of Solomon, has a beautiful reference to this ftory, when he fays,
"For when the horrible fiercenefs of wild beasts came upon these, and they perifhed with the ftings of crooked ferpents, thy wrath endured not forever. But they were troubled for a small feafon, that they might be admonified, having a fign of falvation, to put them in remembrance of the commandment of thy law. For he that turned towards it, was not faved by the thing that he faw, but by thee, that art the Saviour of all. And in this thou madeft thine ene
mies confefs, that it is thou who delivereft from all evil." *
But the grand commentary on the history of the fiery ferpents is furnished by Christ himself, in his converfation with Nicodemus, the Jewish ruler. "As Mofes lifted up the ferpent in the wildernefs, even fo muft the Son of Man be lifted up; that whofoever believeth in him fhould not perish, but have eternal life." t
From this it is evident that many particulars in the Jewish history and political economy, had an interest and importance which extended far beyond the prefent moment, or the fenfible and obvious appearance of things. And in this particular inftance our bleffed Lord has furnished us with an inftructive example, which ought to ferve as a rule, for the application and ufe of figurative, allegorical, and typical fubjects. Here he enters into no detail; purfues no parrallel or contraft through a multiplicity of particulars; furnishes no wings to the imagination; but fixing on one great, general view of the fubject, renders it thereby more powerful and impreflive. He was converfing with a ruler of the Jews; was explaining to him the nature and end of his own miflion; was deducing the nature and tendency of the gofpel difpenfation from the established rites of the Mofaic, and the received facts of the Jewish history, with which Nicodemus was perfectly well acquainted. In this cafe he refers to a noted event, and appeals from it to one which was fhortly to take place, betwixt which a ftriking line of refemblance fhould be apparent-The elevation of the brazen ferpent in the wilderness, for the healing of the Ifraelites who were perishing by the envenomed ftings of the fiery ferpents and the elevation of the Son of Man upon the crofs, the propitiation for the fins of the world; that when this laft difplay of the divine justice and mercy fhould be exhibited, Nicodemus, and every intelligent and honeft difciple of Mofes, might
Wisdom, ch. xvi.
John, ch. ii. 14, 15.
might be fatisfied that "God had at fundry times, and in divers manners," prefented as in a glafs to the fathers, the method of redemption by Jesus Christ.
All the application, then, which the words of the Saviour himself warrant us to make of this paffage to him, is reduced to a few obvious and striking particulars. "Fools," fuch as the Ifraelites in the defert, and tranfgreffors of the divine law in general, " becaufe of their tranfgreffion, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted. Their foul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near unto the gates of death. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he faveth them out of their diftreffes. He fent his word and healed them, and delivered them from their deftructions." #
The root of the evil, the cause of the plague, is to be found in human perversity and difobedience. The faithful and obedient fleeps safe and secure in the lion's den; to the proud and rebellious the innoxious worm is converted into a fiery ferpent, full of deadly poison. The remedy for this fore evil is to be traced up to the divine compaffion, power and goodness.
The means of cure are not fuch as human wisdom would have devised, or the reafon of man approved; they are the fovereign appointment of Heaven. The effect is preternatural, yet real; and reafon rejoices in what it could not have discovered. The fight of a lifelefs ferpent of metal working as an antidote to the mortal poifon of one alive; incredible, abfurd! Such was the doctrine of the crofs in the eyes of prejudice, and philofophy, "and fcience, falfely fo called." "For the preaching of the crofs is to them that perish, foolishness; but unto us which are faved, it is the power of God. For it is written, I will deftroy the wifdom of the wife, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. Where is the wife? where is the fcribe? where is the difputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of
Pfal. cvii. 17-20.
this world? For after that in the wifdom of God the world by wifdom knew not God, it pleafed God by the foolishness of preaching to fave them that believe. For the Jews require a fign, and the Greeks feek after wisdom. But we preach Chrift crucified, unto the Jews, a ftumbling-block; and unto the Greeks, foolifhnefs but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Chrift, the power of God, and the wifdom of God." *
The virtue flowed from the divine appointment, operating together with the believing act of the patient. To the fufferer who averts his face, or wilfully and contemptuously fhuts his eyes, that banner is dif played in vain; no virtue iffues from it, he perifhes in his unbelief. To the defpifer, the impenitent, the careless, Chrift has died in vain. In the extenfion of all God's acts of grace to men, to produce the full effect, there must of neceffity be an unity of defign and exertion between the giver and the receiver, between him who acts and him who is acted upon. Man's body is "duft of the ground," mere matter, feparated from the fpirit, incapable of motion or direction. Even that active, penetrating organ, the eye, is but a little lump of pellucid clay, till the vital principle, the breath of God, kindle its fires, and direct its rays. It is this vital principle which, proceeding from God, exifts in him, and poffeffes the power of rifing and returning to him. The believing Ifraelite hears, in dying agonies, the proclamation of deliverance, lifts up his drooping head, looks, and is healed; his will meets the will of God, and the cure is already performed. The perifhing finner hears the voice of the Son of God and lives. Lifted up upon the crofs he utters his voice, "Look unto me and be ye faved, all the ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is none elfe." One of his fellow fufferers hardens his heart and reviles him, turns from the Saviour with difdain, and dies impenitent-the other hears with rapture
† Ifai. xlv. 22.
1 Cor. ch. i. 18—24.