Israel are well and truly in the wilderness and have been for some time now. The problem for them is that the wilderness “is no longer simply a place but a state of mind” (Fretheim). They are caught in- between promise and fulfilment and that poses significant challenges to their faith.
We, too, are like Israel, in the in-between – having been saved and yet being saved; called out from the world into the Lord’s kingdom but not yet in the fullness of all that will mean. And when you’re in the wilderness, it is often difficult to sort out what is perception and what is reality. In this passage, we see Israel still struggling with that.
1. Being Led
Israel, for all their faults, do at least display here some semblance of obedience, in that they respond to the Lord’s leading – they set out “as the LORD commanded”. The road of discipleship is a case of ‘one step after another’ and the hymn-writer was right that ‘each victory will help you some other to win’.
But you’ve got to keep putting one foot in front of the other, which is what Israel fails to do here. They are led to Rephidim but there is water there and, instead of seeking God in faith, they once more complain. But this is even worse than before; the term used here is very strong – they quarrel with Moses and again accuse him of having led them out simply for them to die in the desert.
The mistake Israel makes here is to assume that being led by the Lord means a life without difficulty; as one writer has helpfully said, “God’s leading does not always move directly toward oases” (Fretheim). To encounter difficulty and hardship is not proof that we have been mistaken is terms of the Lord’s leading – we must not think that we have taken a wrong turn if we encounter challenging situations.
In fact, it is part of God’s purposes to lead his people into this difficult situation, just as we see the Spirit leading Jesus after his baptism into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. That may have seemed a strange choice on the Lord’s part but he knows what he’s doing.
The end in view in all the leading of God is fullness of life and joy in his presence but there are many turns to be taken along the path that leads there and some of those turns will be into darker times in which the Lord’s purpose is to cause his light to be seen more brightly, for his grace to be seen as all-sufficient, for us to be built-up in our most holy faith.
But Israel has yet to see that. They test the Lord in their unbelief, making their continued belief in him to rest upon a demonstration of his power and provision. What they’re doing is trying to turn faith into sight – and, sadly, we can find ourselves unwittingly doing the same.
The Lord leads; it may even be into times of difficulty but his purpose is not to crush but to conform us; he wants us to know the riches of his love in the wastelands of this world, the delights of his grace in the darkness of a world in sin. We can trust him; he’s proved that he’s worthy of that trust in the cross of Calvary.
2. Being Gracious
When the people quarrel with him, Moses asks why they’re testing the Lord and then goes in person to the Lord for help, asking what he should do with the people. Whether we’re in leadership in some capacity or whether we’re not, Moses’ example is a good one to learn from – take it to the Lord in prayer.
The Lord doesn’t directly answer that question but instead tells Moses to take his staff and to take the elders with him and to go to the rock at Horeb where the Lord will stand before him. And at Horeb, with the elders as witnesses and with the Lord before him, Moses is to strike the rock and water will flow from it. The same staff that struck the Nile and brought about judgement is to strike the rock and bring relief and blessing.
So that is what Moses does and that is what we see – the Lord acting in mercy and grace, bringing the blessings of creation into the wilderness. Here is a beautiful demonstration again of why he has brought Israel out of Egypt – his plans are to heal creation and make fruitful that which is barren.
In the light of the fact that the people are now quarrelling with Moses (and hence the Lord), it’s all the more remarkable to see God’s patience with them here. This is the third time they have reacted badly and once more the Lord bears with his people and meets their need.
And he does so in person – Moses may strike the rock but the Lord is right there before him. When Paul reflects on this incident in the NT he tells us that the rock was Christ, the Messiah – the people are given physical drink but, more than that, they are drinking from the spiritual rock that is Christ (1 Cor. 10:1ff).
Just as the manna points forward to Jesus, so this water also reflects that perspective. Yet it is more than that; the people drink of Christ himself – God is present with them and feeds them with himself and satisfies their thirst in ways that are deeper than the physical.
That is the measure of the grace and the provision of God for his people. He gives not just gifts but himself – that is at the heart of his mission. That is to be our goal and aim too – to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.
3. Being named
The Lord is gracious to his people but that doesn’t mean he is indifferent to their sin in quarrelling with him and testing him in their unbelief. And so this place is memorialised as Massah and Meribah, ‘testing and quarreling’.
In time, this incident came to stand as one of the chief evidences of the hardness of the people’s hearts – they had been recipients of great mercies, blessed so signally by the Lord and yet they failed him so badly. And so the failure was marked down and used as an object lesson for generations to come, just as we have seen Paul using it in 1 Cor. 10:1-4.
Maybe there are places in our histories that also deserve just such a name – times and places where we have quarrelled, where we have made our hearts hard and distrusted the Lord. If we know that there are such places in our own history, does that mean we can no longer walk with the Lord?
Such places are named not in order to shame but to teach, to humble and to encourage fresh faith and obedience. Israel would always remember Massah and Meribah and would be exhorted to listen and to learn from this incident.
As we look at our own stuttering discipleship in the light of Israel’s failure, we need to take to heart their example and humble our hearts. We also need to do what they singularly failed to do: look to the Rock in faith and trust.
The message they heard and that they witnessed in the great exodus events was not combined with faith; if we’re Christians this morning, we have come to faith in Jesus and we share in the true exodus in him, but we must make sure that our faith is an ongoing reality, that our trust is living and real.
And take heart from Paul’s words in 1 Cor 10:13 – “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
May God work in us what is pleasing in his sight. Amen.