Nehushtan for Our Generation: The King James Version

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, he lived.    Numbers 21:8-9

Moses and the Bronze Snake

A remarkable, memorable day in Israel’s history. Thousands were saved from a deadly scourge. But were they saved because of the bronze snake, or by faith in the One who invested it with such power? Surely the latter is true, but human flesh tends toward the physical realm. Those who remembered and passed down the tradition became gradually more fascinated by the bronze snake itself. Perhaps it began as an honest remembrance of God’s hand of deliverance. But it changed along the way, into a perverted veneration of the object. A few hundred years later, the snake makes another appearance in the Bible:

In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. … 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.)   II Kings 18:1-4

Hezekiah smashed it to pieces. Surely there were those who strenuously objected to this act of needless violence against a cherished holy relic. This was an object used mightily by God to effect salvation. Yet it had become an object of misplaced worship, and righteous Hezekiah made a decisive move.

This is the story of many Christian ministries, propped up by nostalgia for a thrilling bygone era, still clinging to existence long after their usefulness to God has been exhausted. God’s Spirit is not fascinated with human institutions or achievements. He uses them as part of His sovereign plan, and moves on, despite Man’s effort to build useless shrines and memorials. Remember Peter’s strange response to the Transfiguration:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”    Matthew 17:1-4

Peter expresses the fleshly human need to make permanent, to memorialize, to attempt to capture in physical atoms and molecules the work of the supernatural Spirit. If those three shelters still stood on top of Mt. Tabor (the likely site of this event), one can be sure that pilgrims would dutifully climb there daily to pay respects, to “burn incense” and commemorate the event.

Mt. Tabor in northern Israel

In the evangelical world we have few such relics. We tend to be skeptical of the value of such things. Yet we have our own Nehushtan: the King James Version of the Bible, whose 400th birthday we celebrate now. What is our attitude toward this great achievement in Biblical history?

John Wycliffe, Bible Translator

Like Moses’ snake, the KJV was used for a divine purpose: to bring the Word of God to the common people of England and (later) America. This is a worthy result and ought to be celebrated. But today we have many believers who insist that the King James Version was specially inspired (the King-James-Onlyists), or at least that it represents the best available English rendering of God’s Word. With the first group there is no hope of reasonable discussion; their position should be shunned and dismissed. The second group merely needs to be educated. At this point in the development of the English language and Biblical archaeology, the KJV cannot be considered a preferred or even an adequate translation for a modern English-speaking believer to use. (In a future post I will share the copious fruits of my research on this subject.) Those who elevate it to an exalted status that it does not deserve are guilty of the same sin as the Israelites in Hezekiah’s day: worshiping a holy relic whose time is past.

I do not suggest that we smash KJV Bibles to bits. I do suggest that we who understand these things make a clear case for modern translations into the vernacular of the common people. That was the triumph of the KJV in its day – a Bible for the common English people. As such it was a culmination of the vision of the martyr John Wycliffe (1328-1384). How ironic that those who insist on its exclusive use now, four centuries after its publication, accomplish the exact opposite of Wycliffe’s noble purpose.

400 years is long enough. Happy retirement, King James.

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