As When Prophet Moses Raised

Let me encourage you to use your hymnal in your daily devotions. Along with the joyful songs of praise, the hymnal supplies a much-needed freshness when our prayer life has become stale. It’s full of themes worthy of our spiritual mediation.

One of the hymns I’ve recently pondered is Isaac Watts’ “As When the Prophet Moses Raised.” It’s a reflection on the words of Jesus in John 3:14-15. Jesus says, “And 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.”

In light of Christ’s precious words, Watts composed these:

“As when prophet Moses raised the brazen serpent high,
the wounded looked and straight were cured, the people ceased to die.
So from the Savior on the cross a healing virtue flows;
Who looks to him with lively faith is saved from endless woes.”

The Old Testament background is found in Numbers 21:4-9. During the wilderness wandering, the children of Israel complain against God and Moses. The Lord sends serpents as an act of judgment. Many are bitten and die. When the people confess their sin and beg Moses for his intercession, the Lord gives Moses a solution. He tells him to make a pole with a fiery serpent on top. Then God says, “Everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” According to Jesus in John 3, this bronze serpent is a type of Christ. As Moses raised the serpent on the pole, so Jesus would be raised up on a cross. As everyone who looked to the serpent pole was healed, so everyone who looks to Jesus on the cross is saved.

The typology fixes our attention on Christ on the cross. This is where our faith looks. We turn away from ourselves and cast our eyes on Christ and his finished sacrifice. This is where “a healing virtue flows”; this is where we are “saved from endless woes.”
The “endless woes” to which Watts refers certainly include hell in the hereafter, but it also refers to the woes we experience as long as we remain in an unconverted state. Such woes include a defiled conscience, a burdened spirit, an enslaved will, and a life devoid of meaning.

The good news is that we are delivered simply by looking to Jesus! Can anything capture the free offer of grace better than to speak of faith as a mere looking? Looking is really doing nothing. It’s simply a matter of opening our eyes and seeing what is already there. It’s turning our attention to the virtue and merit of another. Can we not look? Is it really too much for us to cast our eyes on the One who shouldered the cross for us? All has been done! God has made the perfect provision for sin! We are only told to look and live.

Watts continues:

“For God gave up his Son to death, so gen’rous was his love,
That all the faithful might enjoy eternal life above.
Not to condemn the sons of men the Son of God appeared;
No weapons in his hand are seen, nor voice of terror heard:
He came to raise our fallen state, and our lost hopes restore;
Faith leads us to the mercy seat, and bids us fear no more.”

When we turn our eyes to Jesus, we see God’s generous love. We should never cease to be amazed when we hear those simple words: “God so loved us that he gave us his Son.” We deserve no good thing from God, but he gave us the best he had to give—his only begotten Son. But there’s more—keep looking to Jesus! What do we see? Jesus is not there to accuse or condemn but to lead us to the mercy seat and banish all our fears. The longer we look to Jesus, the more we see; the more we see, the more we enjoy. Let’s continue looking and drawing in the healing streams flowing from this precious fountain!

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