In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah, king of Israel, Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done. He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the LORD, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. 2 Kings 18.1-5.
Hezekiah was clearly a good king and one whose heart was set on God. Here, his devotion to God is shown chiefly in the removal of the shrines from the “high places” and his destruction of the pillars and poles representing the goddess Asherah and other pagan deities that had been introduced into Israel by King Ahab and his foreign wife Jezebel. But Hezekiah did something else that caught my attention this morning. He smashed up the bronze serpent that Moses had made.
At one point during the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Israelite camp was invaded by snakes whose bite was lethal. Many Israelites died, and Moses sought help from the Lord. “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live” (Numbers 21.8-9).
From that point on there is no further mention in Scripture of the bronze serpent that Moses made until, seven hundred years later, we find it here, in this morning’s reading — now an object of veneration among the Israelites. Where was it … In the temple? Or did it have its own shrine somewhere? Who put it there … Solomon? And what form did the Israelites’ veneration of it take? We have no answers to any of those questions; but what we do know is that Hezekiah brought the veneration to an absolute end. Why? Because the veneration of the brass was tantamount to worship and God had said: “You shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34.14).
Ironically, the Israelites had a name for the bronze serpent. They called it Nehushtan which, in Hebrew, simply means “the brass”; and there is plenty of “brass” in churches throughout Christendom today. We have ladies in the church to which I belong to who “do the brass” and keep it bright and shining. Not that there is any brass that is venerated in our church, but I do know of churches where there is — in the form of crucifixes that people genuflect before and even kiss. The same goes in some places for plaster effigies of saints and Mary. Indeed I was once on a spiritual retreat where the leader invited us all to join him in the Chapel to “venerate the host” … to worship (and I cannot see veneration as being anything else) the consecrated wafers reserved from the previous Sunday’s communion service!
What would Hezekiah have done? I hardly dare to think … But before I get too judgmental I need to ask myself this morning whether, at times, I am not guilty of veneration too. What is it that, in worship, captures my eyes and my heart before they settle on God himself? The band? The singer? The preacher?
I imagine the Israelites who venerated the Nehushtan would have argued that whereas it was right for Hezekiah to cut down the Asherah because that was pagan, the bronze serpent was a different matter. It was a symbol of salvation. It related to the true God. And the same arguments go today for crucifixes and the like. They too can be venerated (it is said) because they too are symbols of salvation. In truth, the bronze serpent and a crucifix are one and the same thing. Jesus actually identifies himself on the cross with the brass serpent on the pole: “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” (John 3.14-15). But if the veneration of the one is wrong, so is the other.
No, the old hymn has it right … “Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth —” (including brass serpents or plaster saints or music groups or crucifixes or consecrated wafers) “— will seem strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” It is a strange calling — to turn our eyes on someone we cannot see; but that is the very essence of our faith. Pagans need images, totems, holy objects. We worship the invisible with nothing in between. As Peter put it: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1.8).