The Messiah would be lifted up
Numbers 21:6-9 is not a direct prediction. But it is one of the passages that gives a glimpse, a picture-in-advance, of what the Messiah would be like. Israel was en route from Egypt to the Promised Land when the people (not for the first time) became impatient, ungrateful, and rebellious. Despite God’s provision thus far, they claimed to be afraid that there would be no water and were tired of the same food (provided by God) all the time. In consequence, God sent serpents to bite the people, and some died. But when they confessed their sin, Moses prayed to the Lord, and following God’s instructions, made a copper (or bronze) serpent and placed it on a pole. Then anyone who looked at the serpent would live, even after being bitten.
At one level, this taught Israel to have faith in God even if they could not fully understand what He was asking of them. In Exodus 12, He commanded the Israelites to put the blood of a lamb on their doorposts in order to be spared the plague of death. In Exodus 16, He gave instructions for gathering manna (the food they are tired of in this passage), including gathering twice as much on the sixth day and nothing on the seventh. Some must have been perplexed at those times, and perhaps in this passage as well. But it became a way to teach trust even when full understanding was not present.
But there is another level. In John 3, Yeshua is in conversation with a leading Pharisee, Nicodemus. At one point he remarks, “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). Jesus had his own crucifixion in mind when he was “lifted up” on another pole at his crucifixion; he says as much in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Moreover, Isaiah 52:13, fulfilled in Yeshua, speaks of God’s servant being “lifted up.”
Many have noticed the parallels with the serpent on the pole. No one in the wilderness was spared being bitten, as no one is spared the bite of sin – we all sin and receive the effects of our sin. The Israelites could be healed if they looked at the serpent; anyone can be healed of sin if we look to Yeshua with faith. The copper serpent was the only cure for the poisonous bites; Yeshua is the only cure for sin (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
In a book known as the Wisdom of Solomon written by a Jewish author in the second century BC, we read this reflection on the incident in Numbers:
For when the terrible rage of wild beasts came upon thy people
and they were being destroyed by the bites of writhing serpents,
thy wrath did not continue to the end; they were troubled for a little while as a warning, and received a token of deliverance to remind them of thy law’s command. For he who turned toward it was saved, not by what he saw, but by thee, the Savior of all.
– Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-7
The “token of deliverance” was the copper serpent, through whom God performed the healing. In the same way, the token of deliverance today is Yeshua, through whom we can discover that God is the author of our spiritual healing from sin, for he has been lifted up on the crucifixion stake for us.