For the six weeks leading up to Easter, we’re looking at the unfolding mystery of the gospel from the ancient Scriptures. Although we see the good news of what God has done to save us most clearly after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, you see glimpses of this good news throughout all of Scripture. This is why Jesus could turn to two of his followers, open the Hebrew Scriptures, and explain “to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). The Bible is not a collection of unrelated stories and moral lessons. It is, we discover, the revelation of God that ultimately takes us to Jesus.
Today we are looking at a crisis that took place not long after God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. What we’re going to read is going to highlight three things for us: the trial; the sentence reached as a result of this trail; and the ultimate trial and sentence that we’re all a part of.
So let’s first look at the trail.
As we start to look at this passage, we need to remember what’s just happened. God has just delivered his people from the most totalitarian regime of that day and set them free from centuries of slavery. He’s guiding them visibly by going before them as a pillar of cloud during the day, and a pillar of fire at night. When they’ve had nothing to drink except for bitter water, he’s provided sweet water for them. He’s fed them miraculously in the desert so that they never have to worry about having enough food. What they have seen is nothing short of amazing. But as we look at the passage that was just read for us, we see that there is a problem. We have to look a little below the surface to understand how serious this problem became, not just for them, but for us as well.
In verse 1 we read that Israel has moved to Rephidim. We have no idea where Rephidim is anymore, but we can guess that it’s within traveling distance of the last place they camped, which presumably had water, an oasis in the desert. We read the problem at the end of verse 1: “there was no water for the people to drink.” This is a significant problem.
The whole nation of Israel was on the move, up to two million people. They were not in a car driving; they were in the desert walking. And they were not looking for the convenience of a refreshing drink. Their very lives were at stake. Stopping in the middle of the dessert with no water was big trouble. In the middle of Sinai, dehydration would take hours, not days. As soon as their water-skins from the last night were empty, death was certain. So you can understand why the people of Israel were concerned.
So we read in verse 2: “So they quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.'” Notice that this word keeps coming up in these seven verses. Moses says at the end of verse 2, “Why do you quarrel with me?” In verse 7 we read that Moses renamed the place Massah and Meribah, which means testing and quarreling.
Here’s where we need to understand what’s taking place below the surface. What does this word quarrel mean? It means much more than what your kids do when they’re overtired. It’s more than a spat. The word quarrel here is a legal term describing the launch of a lawsuit. The prophet Micah used the term to describe the lawsuit God brought against Israel for breaking his covenant.
The people of Israel were effectively taking legal action against Moses. The charge was negligence. They say in verse 3, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” And the penalty, presumably, is that after he is found guilty, Moses will be sentenced to death. That’s what Moses says in verse 4. “Then Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.'” They are all going to die in the desert; Moses may as well be the first to go as the one who has brought them there. This is no case of grumbling; this is a trail on a capital offense.
But the defendant in this case wasn’t just Moses. Ultimately, they’re suing God. Verse 7 says, “And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?'”
Here’s the real issue: they are not putting Moses on trial; they are putting God on trial. God had provided for them over and over. He had cared for them in miraculous ways. And yet they’ve put God on trail, charging him with negligence on a mass scale. And the penalty, at least for Moses, is death.
We need to understand what this his incident is and isn’t about. It’s not about the doubts that come our way. Most of us, at one time or another, encounter times that we struggle to believe. I know some people who have lost their jobs in the economic crisis. Somewhere along the line they may struggle. They may say, “God, I’m having a hard time trusting you to provide in these circumstances.” We may need to confess to God that we believe, but that we need help with our unbelief. But that’s not what’s happening here.
What is this passage about then? It’s not about doubt; it’s about accusation. Doubt is when we admit that we don’t understand and that we’re struggling. Accusation is when we set ourselves up as judges over God, and make him the defendant, as if God has to answer to us. Do you see the difference? When we struggle with doubt, we still see God as God. When we accuse God, as in this passage, we have set ourselves up over God. We’ve put him on trial.
And what this passage reveals is that we have a problem. And the problem goes deeper than actions; the problem is that our hearts have an inclination.There’s something within us that makes us prone to question God, even accuse him. This began in Genesis 3, and it continues to this day when we set ourselves up over him, and we’re inclined to press charges against him and doubt his presence at every turn.
I’ve experienced times that God has come through in surprising and extraordinary ways. I’ve heard of the same. Just this week I talked to someone who faced a choice between doing the right thing and the wrong thing. The problem with doing the right thing is that it came with a heavy price tag. It was going to cost him and his family. But he did the right thing, and as soon as he got home there was a check for $5,000 from a stranger. He believed that this was God’s provision for him, a reminder that God would care for him no matter how bad things look.
I hear stories like this, and I’ve experienced them too. But when I get into a jam, my heart’s inclination is not to trust God. My heart’s inclination is to doubt, to fret, to worry and to begin to accuse the One who has provided for me, who has given me far more than I deserve. I don’t wait for my need to be met. I don’t always even pray for my needs to be met. Instead, my inclination is to doubt God, even to put him on trial, to expect him to answer to me.
God said later in Deuteronomy 6:16, “Do not put the LORD your God to the test as you did at Massah.” But we do this all the time. So we see there is a trial going on in this passage, and it’s a trial we’re involved in too.
So what’s going to happen with this trial?
Let’s look together at the sentence that was arrived as a result of this trial.
So just to review: Israel has put Moses, and by extension God, on trial. God is in the dock. What’s going to happen? Read verses 5 and 6 with me:
The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.
What’s happening here? On the simplest level, God is providing water for his thirsty people, showing again that he provides for his people. That’s true. But there’s much more going on here. What you have going on here is a trial.
God tells Moses to go in front of the people. Why? Because this is the court of judges and witnesses. Court is in session as these elders come together. A trial is underway.
God tells Moses to take the staff with him. What staff? The one he’d used to turn the Nile River into blood, judging the gods of Egypt. In other words, this is the rod of judgment.
Moses passes before the people, and you can imagine them thinking, “Oh my goodness, what have we done?” They’ve accused God, and God has now said, “Okay, let’s take this to court and see how this goes.” And now you have the court assembled and the rod of judgment prepared.
What would happen? What if the rod of judgment fell on Israel for their rebellion? You can only imagine. Later on the prophet Isaiah talked about the rod of God’s judgment coming down on Assyria:
The voice of the LORD will shatter Assyria;
with his rod he will strike them down.
Every stroke the LORD lays on them
with his punishing club
will be to the music of timbrels and harps,
as he fights them in battle with the blows of his arm.
But who’s on trial? Is it Moses, who’s been accused by the people? Is it Israel? In one of the most incredible twists, God says in verse 6, “I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb.” You need to understand that in the Old Testament, God does not stand in front of people. People stand before God. God is on trial here. God sits in the prisoner’s dock. Moses has his rod of judgment, and it is God himself who stands to be judged.
And in one of the most incredible passages of Scripture, God tells Moses to raise his rod of judgment and strike the rock. Later on in the psalms that commemorate the event, God is described as a Rock (Psalms 78 and 95). God is standing by the rock as it’s stricken. Do you see what is happening?
God was not guilty. God had done nothing wrong. He had provided for them over and over again. And yet Israel put God on trial. God stands in the place of the accused. And now, at God’s command, the rod of judgment strikes God himself, not because he is guilty, but because the people are guilty. He gets the punishment that they deserve.
And as a result of that judgment, as the rock is smitten, water comes out. The needs of a rebellious people are met as God himself bears the punishment that they deserved. They drink the water they need and their lives are saved precisely because God took the judgment they should have received! The guilty verdict is read, but instead of the guilty being punished, God is. God receives the judgment he didn’t deserve, and the guilty receive the grace that they didn’t deserve.
Do you understand? The God we serve, the Rock of Israel, is a God of mercy who bears his own judgment for the sins of his people. It’s amazing! Some people think the God of the Old Testament was a harsh God. Here we see that God is a gracious and compassionate God, one who – even in the Old Testament – stands in the place of the guilty, bearing the punishment on behalf of his people. The stricken rock shows us the gospel of grace, even in the time of Moses.
But the story doesn’t end there. We’ve seen the trail and the sentence reached at the end of this trail.
What I’d like to look at before we close is the ultimate trail we’re all a part of, and the ultimate sentence that was paid.
God himself took the punishment that Israel deserved. It’s great news. But there is a greater problem, that should concern us all.
In the coming years, Israel fails God time and time again. The events that we just read about took place at the beginning of the wanderings in the wilderness. Sadly, a similar event took place almost forty years later in Numbers 20. The old generation had died out; a new generation is in place, and they’re about to enter the Promised Land. We read in Numbers 20 that this new generation also quarreled with Moses. The wanderings of Israel in the desert are bookended with these failures. This time, tragically, Moses failed by striking the rock twice. He knew that God’s presence was in the rock, and that speaking to it would be speaking with God. He hit the rock twice, and unthinkable outburst of anger against God. God still provided water for Israel, but he announced the verdict. Moses would not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land, because he had disobeyed God in such a severe manner.
God was so gracious in Exodus 17 when he stood in the place of sinners. But the problem is that the story doesn’t end in Exodus 17. It continues in Exodus 32 and in all the failures of Israel, and even the failure of Moses himself. Even the good guys fail! What hope is there for us? God took the punishment for them in Exodus 17, but what’s going to happen with all of their other failures? What’s going to happen when even the good guys commit the most horrible sins?
The New Testament answers this question, and it’s amazing. In 1 Corinthians 10:4-5 we read: “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.”
What does this mean? It means that Jesus Christ was with Israel in the desert wanderings. The rock that was smitten by Moses was Jesus Christ himself. The smitten rock points us to the ultimate Rock who was smitten for our sins: Jesus Christ. We have received the guilty verdict for our sin. God, the righteous judge, must take the rod of divine justice and administer the sentence. But it is Jesus who is smitten. Isaiah wrote:
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
When Moses struck the rock in the desert, life-giving water poured out. And when Jesus was smitten at the cross, blood and water poured out from his side. In the ultimate trial that we’re all a part of, we have been found guilty. But when the rod of divine justice came down, it came down on Jesus. And as a result of that Rock, Jesus Christ, being smitten, we get the water that we need.
As we close, we need to see two things clearly. One is that we’re part of a trail, and that we deserve the guilty verdict. We deserve the rod of justice. Even the best of us don’t stand a chance.
But then we need to see that the rod of divine justice will fall on us, and it should. But there’s another way. Jesus said, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38). Jesus said, “Those who drink the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).
One day we will stand before God in judgment. The rod of divine justice will be there. On that day, there are many who will plead innocence. They’ll talk about all the good things they’ve done. But not even Moses was good enough. On that great and dreadful day, we will have to acknowledge that we deserve that rod of judgement to come down on us, and it’s a rod that can crush us.
But on that day we can have hope. We can look at the rod of justice, admit that it’s what we deserve, but then plead that Jesus our Rock stood in our place and received the judgment that we deserved. I plead with you to put your trust in Christ this morning.
Father, thank you for your amazing grace. Thank you that Jesus endured and exhausted the divine judgement that we should have received. This is our only comfort in life and death. We look to that Rock today. Amen.