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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Do You Have Any Bronze Snakes in Your Worship?

In 2 Kings 18, the biblical author records an interesting occurrence when describing the reforms that Hezekiah accomplished in the early part of his reign:

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother’s name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father David had done. He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.) [2 Kings 18:1-4, NIV]
Notice the last part of verse 4, “He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)” It is just a passing reference, but demands that we stop and take the time to unpack it.  The bronze snake had its origin when the people of Israel began to gripe and complain during their wilderness journeys. We find the story in Numbers 21: 4-9:

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.  The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

Remember that not long before they had witnessed some of the greatest miracles in the Bible, the parting of the sea, their crossing on dry ground and the defeat of Pharaoh’s army. They were being fed manna by God, Himself, and many other miracles of God’s provision and protection had occurred.  Although it is easy for us to play armchair quarterback as we read the story, when we are honest with ourselves, many times we forget all that God has done as well when a sudden crisis arises and we are in deep need.   The needs that arose in the wilderness served as tests to see if they would believe God and trust Him. Unfortunately, almost every time, they failed the tests. When the crisis hits us, or the phone comes with bad or tragic news, it is difficult to respond in faith, but as our relationship with God deepens, it can and will happen.

Back to our story. The pole with the snake that Moses made soon fades into the background of Israel’s history and doesn’t surface again until the days of Hezekiah. Scripture doesn’t give us a detailed account, only that by the time of the writing of 2 Kings, what once had been a symbol and memorial of God’s justice and redemption, had become an object of worship.  The people had even gone so far as to give it a name, Nehushtan, which sounds like the words for bronze and snake in Hebrew. I do not want to make more of this than does Scripture, but over the years the snake must have been kept by the priests and it must have been more accessible and visible than the ark, which the people could not see.

Where or how really isn’t that important, but what must have happened was a gradual shift in how the object was viewed. Over the years as the story was told the emphasis must have changed from God’s power and Moses’ obedience in making the snake to the people just looking at the snake. They must have forgotten that God used an object that represented their own disobedience to bring about their restoration. Instead of realizing that it was in obeying God’s command to look at the snake that they were healed, they focused on just looking at the snake, as if it in its own power it could perform miracles. What was meant to be a memory or memorial of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness had become an idol of worship.

The snake was not the only idol worshiped when Hezekiah became king, but it was probably one of the few, if not the only one that was directly related to objects within their own religious history. As painful as it must have been for the King to destroy something that Moses, himself had fashioned and used and that had been such a powerful symbol in their history, Hezekiah knew that it has lost its true meaning and was actually leading people away from God, instead of reminding them and turning them to Him. There was only was only one way to stop the idolatry and that was to destroy the idol.

Although this is a fascinating account, what does it mean for us today?  We don’t have poles with bronze snakes on them in our sanctuaries, do we?
  Well, that is a great question. Anyone that knows me, knows that I love history and am passionate about our understanding where and how we have gotten to where we are so that we can better understand where we are going. To ignore our past is to take a path to destruction.

At the same time, we must be honest with ourselves and others if we are allowing things in our past that perhaps at one time were pillars of our faith to become bronze snakes. Perhaps at our conversion a particular pastor, song, place, etc., was instrumental in our coming to Christ or for many to come to Christ. The memory and emotions linked to that time were strong, perhaps even overpowering. Yet, with time the focus has morphed into one where the joy of the memory is more with the association of the song, place, etc., than God who brought it all together. If we are not careful, we can allow these very precious people, or things to become bronze snakes that steal away the worship that only God, Himself deserves.  God has zero tolerance for idolatry. We can and should thank God for the important people and events that have been instrumental in our relationship with God, but careful to remember it is God and God alone who is the center and focus of our worship.

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