Devotional — Careful consideration of symbols

Published 7:47 pm Thursday, May 12, 2022

Numbers 21:4-9 is an interesting and troubling story of the people of God on the Exodus becoming bitter toward God and Moses. The response is a plague of poisonous snakes. Many people die, but as a result, they change their tune and ask to be saved from the snakes. Moses follows God’s instruction to make a bronze serpent on a pole, and those who look to the pole are not killed by the snakes (who were still biting them….) Yikes.

This symbol of lifesaving power persisted with at least some of Jewish people. This even became a problem centuries later in Jewish life as people were actually worshipping this image that before seemed salvific. Maybe it was supposed to still heal or to save them from the “snakes” of their worldly troubles. Maybe it was just a symbol of God’s power, though the symbol itself was empty. They were looking back to a former time and drawing from it hope, assurance, and faith that was completely misplaced. 2 Kings 18 describes King Hezekiah’s reforms which included tearing down the idols and false saviors, specifically the same snake on a pole, Nehushtan. It had even gotten a name by that time, like many idols.

Jewish interpretation generations later correctly noted that when the ancient Hebrews looked up to that serpent in the air out in the wilderness, what they were really gazing toward was heaven. It was not about the symbol of the snake as much as it was about the one above the serpent, above them all, the one who brought light and life from heaven. It was to prompt people to gaze up from their troubles and worldly focus and to remember who is bigger and more wonderful – the giver of life. Return your focus to God.

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But what the people kept in their hearts was the love of this created image, this symbol. They forgot that it represented a time of evil, a time of sin, a time of rejecting God, and that its purpose was to turn them back to God. Instead, they followed the symbol. Their love of idols misled them into more ignorance and away from God. Thankfully, God was not done with them, and Hezekiah stood up for God in that time. He tore down the symbols and images that did not reflect God but really our love of ourselves.

We continue to lift up symbols that show the brokenness of the past and darker days. We continue accept our history of sin rather than God’s redemption and reconciliation. We reject the Kingdom of God for the kingdom of the world. This is what Nehushtan shows us today. It is my prayer that we carefully consider our love of symbols and how they truly reflect God’s heart.

Rev. Dr. Peter Smith is the pastor for Farmville Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at