‘All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the LORD, and camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?’
In Exodus 17:1-7 the people are faced with the difficulty of not having any water to drink and respond with grumbling and complaining. Since bringing his people out of Egypt, God has been leading them in the wilderness – he has been ever present and has always provided and protected them. Yet when tested the people have failed to trust him and in so doing they have sinned greatly. Surely they should justly face judgment.
In verse 2, the passage records that the people, faced with no water, rather than trusting God to provide for them, quarrelled with Moses.
The word ‘quarrel’ translates the Hebrew word ‘Rib’ which carries with it legal connotations. It is often used with the meaning of ‘to bring suit’ or ‘to plead ones case’. What is being described is a legal dispute. We should be astonished. Despite, over recent weeks, God miraculously providing for them time and again they grumble and complain at Moses out of concern for their physical needs. In v3, they even accuse Moses of bringing them out of Egypt to kill them, their children and livestock through thirst. What they are doing is putting Moses on trial. In verse 4 Moses says to God
‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’
And so it would seem that the people have already found Moses guilty as charged. The sentence of death has been passed and is on the point of being carried out.
Moses, though, has it right when, in v2, he says to the people
‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’
Moses is God’s representative – a quarrel with him is a quarrel with God. The people are not really putting Moses on trial – rather they are putting God on trial. They are accusing him of failing to protect them by claiming that he brought them out of Egypt in order to kill them in the desert. Their demand for water is an accusation that God has failed to provide for them and, what’s more, from verse 7, we see they are even questioning whether God was with them at all.
‘They tested the Lord by saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’
The audacity of the people is breathtaking. They are the guilty ones – ungrateful and untrusting. They are the ones who ought to be called to give an account of themselves, and yet, here they are, calling on God to give account of Himself. They accuse him of deserting them despite the fact that all the while his presence with them was manifested to them by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. In truth the people display a hardness of heart similar to that displayed by Pharaoh and the Egyptians – which is exactly how the psalmist describes these events in Psalm 95:7-9 where the idea of God being on trial is confirmed
‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah as on the day at Massah in the wilderness when your fathers put me to the test and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work’
So what will be God’s response? Moses must have been wondering just that. He cries out to the Lord: ‘What shall I do with this people?’ Perhaps he expected God to act in judgment on his people – we might expect God to at least show his displeasure – to have a few stern words for them. But instead something quite remarkable occurs. Prepared to be amazed!
Exodus 17:5-6 we read this
‘And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.”’
So what is going on here? Remember God is being accused by the people – he is being put on trial by them. What we are seeing here then is God submitting himself to trial. Rather than putting the people in the dock for their flagrant disobedience, God takes their place and puts himself on trial. Instead of judging his people he allows himself to be judged by his people.
He says nothing in his defence but simply tells Moses to pass before the people and go to the roc’ at Horeb and he is to take with him some of the elders of Israel and the staff with which he struck the Nile.
Horeb was not far from Mount Sinai, and was the place where God first appeared to Moses in the burning bush. The Elders are there to witness the judgment that was to be given – they serve, as it were, as the jury at the trial. The rod is the instrument of judgment – just as it was when it struck the Nile when it turned the water to blood back in Exodus 7. God now stands on the rock before Moses and commands Moses to strike the rock on which he stands.
Do you see what happened?
Moses strikes God!
The significance of this is huge. God is struck by the rod of judgment. Rather than the people being punished, God is punished – in their place, for their good. And the result was that water came out of the rock and the people were able to drink.
So what did all this prove? Well it proved everything about God that the people were calling into question. They were accusing him of being unable to provide for them or protect them and they doubted his presence. But here we see Him providing water for them and all the while protecting them from his own wrath by his submitting himself to judgment rather than them. And his presence could no longer be doubted as there He was – standing on the rock – right in front of them!
God was clearly then innocent of the charges against Him – but still commanded Moses to strike him with the rod of judgment
Now you will remember how, after his resurrection, Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, said to the disciples he met that day how everything written about him in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. The Old Testament is all about Jesus. It all points towards Jesus and specifically to the cross. Here we have seen an excellent example of this. At the rock of Horeb we have a picture of what would ultimately happen at Calvary where, God, in the person of his son Jesus Christ, would submit himself to judgment for the good of his people. Though innocent, Jesus bore the punishment that his people should rightfully have borne and thereby provide salvation for them. And less you think this is me being fanciful, seeing comparisons that aren’t really there let me take you to 1 Corinthians 10 where the apostle Paul wrote this:
‘…our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ’
The rock was Christ because like the rock, Christ was struck with divine judgment. On the cross, Christ bore the curse for our sin – God struck him with the rod of his own justice. Isaiah 53:5 reads
‘But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.’
The punishment that Jesus bore on the cross is the proof of our protection, proving that we will not face eternal punishment for our sins. Because God has taken the judgment for our sins upon himself we are safe – eternally safe.
‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’
The rock was also Christ because it flowed with water – the water of life. On the cross, John records how in order to confirm that Jesus was dead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear and at once there came out blood and water. The blood was the blood that he shed for our sins – without which there is no forgiveness of sins – but the water reminds us that by his death he also gives us life. Jesus himself said in John 4:14
‘Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’
And again in John 7:37
‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.’
Jesus then not only protects us – he also provides for us.
And of course, as he assured the disciples in Matthew 28:20 just before his ascension, he is always present with us too.
‘And behold, I am with you always , to the end of the age’
‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
In Christ, God is for us what he was for Israel in the wilderness. Our provider, our protector and our ever present Lord. He is all we need. We may not be on the way to a geographical promised land but we are on the way to heaven. Right now we are as it were in the wilderness but, as we journey on in this life, God has provided for us, in Christ, all we need to guarantee our safe arrival in heaven – in God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ perfect life of righteousness, credited to us, makes us acceptable to God.
Jesus’ perfect death in our place satisfies Gods just anger at our sinfulness.
So let us trust him that his words are true. We will face trials of many kinds in our lives but through it all let us fix our eyes on Jesus – the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame. Let us feed on him, let us come to him for water – and let us find him wholly sufficient for all our needs.
‘Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land. Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.’
I am indebted to a sermon on Exodus 17:1-7 that I heard preached some years ago by William Taylor which led me to see much of what is written here.