Nehushstan: Sacred Serpents

He removed the high places, shattered the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He also demolished the bronze snake called Nehushtan that Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had burned incense to it (2 Kings 18:4).

When reading 2 Kings 18 we find a glimmer of hope in Judah. Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, king of Judah is on a mission to destroy idolatry in Judah. Hezekiah trusted the LORD and wanted to do what pleased Him (2 Kings 18:3, 5).

On his campaign against idolatry Hezekiah destroyed high places, Asherah poles, and the bronze serpent Moses had set up. I don’t know about you, but I found 2 Kings 18:4 to be shocking for a two reasons. First, it amazed me that the bronze serpent was still in Judah. Through military campaigns, invasions, occupations, captivities, and centuries this bronze snake still has a presence with God’s people. Second, the people were actually worshiping the bronze serpent!

The reference to Moses making this bronze serpent points us back to Numbers 21:4-9. The people of Israel were still in the wilderness, Aaron recently died, and the people were still complaining. The people spoke against the LORD and Moses. So, the LORD punished them with venomous snakes that bit the people and killed many. When this judgement came, the people confessed their sin and asked Moses to pray that the LORD would remove the snakes. In His mercy, the LORD provided a way for the children of Israel to escape punishment. He instructed Moses to make a bronze snake, lift it up, and instruct the people that anyone who was bitten could look at the lifted up snake and live.

Fast forward centuries later to Hezekiah’s day, and the object that symbolized God’s rescue was elevated to worship. The people took the lifeless snake and burned incense to it rather than worshiping the LORD who provided their rescue. The bronze snake had no power to provide healing. Instead, it was through faith in the LORD that the people were healed. When they trusted the LORD and His Word and looked on the serpent as He commanded, they lived. Yet, the people took the object God used and made it the object of worship.

As I allowed the shock of their misplaced worship to weigh on my heart, I had to confess my own sacred serpents. We are often guilty of making objects God uses the focus of our devotion. As fallen people we can always turn things into idols. We often make church buildings the object of our devotion. Even when buildings have lost their usefulness, people will hold onto them because of what God did in their lives while they were in that place. Paintings, crosses, communion serving plates, pianos, organs, pews, chairs, programs, lecterns, campgrounds, sound systems, vehicles, and the unending list of things we can become devoted to could go on-and-on.

We can (and often do) make objects that God has used in our lives into idols. These things can become the objects of our affection and worship. These things can become the Nehushstans of our hearts.

Returning to 2 Kings 18:4, while it may be shocking that the people worshiped the bronze serpent, it may be equally shocking that Hezekiah demolished it! Think about what he did! He destroyed a piece of Judah’s history and culture. He destroyed an object that had part in God’s story for His people. He took something that represented God’s rescue work, and he destroyed it to rescue God’s people from idolatry. He didn’t simply instruct them to stop worshiping it; he removed the possibility of worshiping it.

Am I suggesting a Church-wide destruction of crosses, pews, programs, communion ware, buildings, musical instruments, etc.? No. Although in some cases the devotion to some objects runs deeply enough that their demolition would not be a bad thing.

I am suggesting and urging honest self-examination with something like the prayer of Psalm 139:23-24:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my concerns.
See if there is any offensive way in me;
lead me in the way everlasting.

This prayer allows God access to our hearts and declares submission to His work of destroying the Nehushstans that are hidden in our hearts. I am urging that we take an active role in removing idols from our hearts on an individual and corporate level. The more I submit to God’s work in this area of my life the more misplaced devotion is exposed.

As we practice self-examination, let’s consider the motivation that Hezekiah modeled:

And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done (2 Kings 18:3).

Hezekiah trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel. No king in Judah was like him, either before him or after him. He remained faithful to the LORD and did not turn from following Him; he kept the commandments that the LORD had given Moses (2 Kings 18:5-6).

While Hezekiah was far from perfect, and we should be careful how far we follow him, he provides an excellent model in his dealing with idolatry in 2 Kings 18. He trusted in the LORD, not the objects the LORD used. When an object, even a culturally significant object previously used by God, took worship away from God, he was willing to demolish it. The LORD, not the symbols or instruments He uses, is the point. The LORD is the only One worthy of worship.

I believe this is the appropriate time to put the bronze snake in it’s big-picture place in Scripture. The bronze serpent was lifted up in the wilderness to provide physical deliverance from God’s judgement brought through snake bites. However, the Apostle John sheds light on what this bronze object ultimately foreshadowed in John 3:14-15:

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.

It is doubtful Hezekiah knew that the point of Numbers 21 was to look ahead to Messiah Jesus. This is one of the mysteries that was not made known until later. However, this point drives home the principle by which Hezekiah demolished the idols. His trust was in the LORD and not in objects made with hands. The LORD is the only One deserving trust and worship.

The Lord Jesus Christ was lifted up on a cross, not so crosses would be revered, but so all who trust in Him will have eternal life for God’s glory.

How about you? Where is your trust? Is your trust in the Lord Jesus alone? He has been lifted up so that all who look to Him in faith have eternal life. If you have never trusted in Him, He urges, even commands you, to believe on Him.

Believers, may we heed the warning of 1 John 5:21, which is an appropriate way to close this subject:

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

This was a warning written to believers in Jesus, whom John calls “little children.”

May we follow the example of Hezekiah and by the Holy Spirit demolish idols in our hearts. May we keep the LORD alone as the object of our trust and worship.

Scripture Quotations from:

The Holy Bible, Berean Study Bible, BSB
Copyright ©2016, 2020 by Bible Hub
Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.