Unbelief and Murmuring (vv. 1-3)
Some sins take hold upon us, especially those that entwine themselves into our attitudes about life and the spirit in which we approach difficulty. You would think that Israel would have passed those first few months in a spiritual euphoria. They were free. God gave Egypt for their ransom. He had provided for them that morning with bread from heaven. The pillar of fire protected them at night, and the cloud of God’s glory led them during the day. And yet, with all these blessings, they did not trust him. Each new challenge set them to grumbling again, as if he had never helped them or done anything for them at all. And this is what we must learn most from their continual murmuring. Unless confronted and forsaken through repentance, unbelief spreads its blighting influence in our souls, the church, and the world. It makes men fearful, skeptical, and distrustful. It makes them howl against God at the slightest trouble. Unbelief can make even his professing friends peevish against the Lord and forgetful of his many mercies. It prevents us from giving him his rightful praise – which is our greatest joy.
There is something else very disturbing about Israel’s sin. They again question God’s wisdom in delivering them, implying that they would have preferred to remain in Egypt or to be killed in the plagues. Unbelief blinds us to God’s mercies. It is also very selfish, in that it leads us to think only of how we are feeling at the moment or the difficulties we are facing. Unbelief and ingratitude leave no room to wait upon the Lord to provide for us and to work out his purposes, which are hidden from us. Unbelief is very demanding. Give us what we want now; we do not want to suffer and go through this. This is not fair. If God loved us, then he would not test us like this. And thus we have a startling snapshot of the way we often respond to God’s mercies. We have so many more riches in Christ, especially redemption accomplished, the indwelling Spirit of wisdom and holiness, and his all-sufficient word. Yet, we are easily blown off track by comparatively small troubles so that we completely forget his benefits to us in Christ. And forgetting his unsearchable riches, we do not call upon him for help and strength, which is to commit a double robbery against the Son of God – robbing him of his honor and pleasure in helping and delivering his Bride, and robbing us of our joy and delight in drawing near to him for grace and mercy.
In this word chide or contend, we see the true evil of murmuring against God. It is fighting against his government of our lives and discontent with his provision. A complaining spirit is thus to go to war with God. In believers, it is most often a quiet little war we wage against him. We do not thank him for past and present mercies, or praise him for his faithfulness. We cop a bad attitude toward him, which usually finds its target in those closest to us, so that we snap angrily at them or are cynical and speak bitterly to them. What we must understand is that this is really being directed against the Lord, but since we cannot touch him, we lash out at those around us. Let us learn from Israel’s contention against the Lord that he highly values a meek and quiet spirit. Peter’s description of the excellent wife is in fact a description of the happy Christian (1 Pet. 3:4). We must not allow our discontent and fear to rampage through our souls like wild ponies but seek for him to tame and lead us as he thinks best (Ps. 32:9). If we are yielded to him, we can be thirsty but trust that he knows this and is leading us to the next oasis. We can rejoice in the provision that he has seen fit to give and trust that he will keep his promises never to leave or forsake us. Therefore, if we fight against him, we shall provoke his jealousy and never have a moment’s rest in our soul. But if we yield to him, he will surely carry us through the wilderness and show us his great strength and faithfulness.
Even Moses Exasperated (v. 4)
Moses was very zealous for the Lord’s glory and shocked by Israel’s audacity. The people lived by his goodness and protection, but they constantly provoked his majesty. Moses had enough of their complaining, and he was more overwhelmed by the thought that he had to lead them. He rightly believed that they were about to stone him, which throughout Israel’s history was considered an acceptable way to deal with enemies of the community (Num. 14:10; 1 Sam. 30:6; John 8:59; Acts 5:26). Moses did not know how to deal with this thirsty, angry mob that would not walk by faith or wait quietly for the Lord’s provision. He did not doubt the Lord’s faithfulness or power; his complaint concerned leadership itself – how could he lead these people? Since Moses knew that they were the hope of the world and that God’s promise of a Messiah was inseparable from them, it was no small question he raised.
Moses was learning the difficulties associated with servant leadership. He was very zealous for the Lord’s glory and went right to the heart of their wickedness – they were testing the Lord, tempting him, provoking him. This is most serious, although very few of us even consider that our unbelief and complaining are poking God in the eye by telling him that he is unfaithful, unloving, and unable or unwilling to help us. But he has made a covenant with us and sealed it with the blood of his Son. He is holy and good and righteous. When we go through difficulties, it is his hand that afflicts us. Shall we ever learn this and be quiet before him? Only the Spirit can help us in this regard. Otherwise, we shall squirm and complain every step of our pilgrimage, which dishonors him and increases the heaviness of our burdens – all because we will not yield ourselves to be led meekly.
We cannot excuse Moses’ complaining against the Lord, but we learn an important lesson from it. It is sad and shocking to see how frustrated and disappointed a godly man may become by the waywardness of those who profess to know the Lord. For this reason, the Holy Spirit urges us to submit to our leaders and make their oversight a joyful work (Heb. 13:17). Israel’s constant complaining made Moses’ service miserable and tempted him to sin against the Lord more than once. How much more when we resist the counsel of our elders? Or when we complain against the preacher because he does not give us God’s word in just the way we would like it or says things that step upon our toes? No leadership is perfect, and Moses was not. Still, in murmuring against Moses and threatening to kill, him, we learn how dangerously fickle our hearts are and how easily we become angry under comparatively slight provocations. God powerfully used Moses to deliver, lead, and feed his people, but they wanted to kill him because they were thirsty. Each one must ask the Lord for a trusting and thankful heart. Then, we will more readily submit to him when he leads us through dark places or seems to be treating us roughly.
Water from the Rock (vv. 5-7)
5 And the LORD said to Moses, "Go on before the people, and take with you some of the elders of Israel. Also take in your hand your rod with which you struck the river, and go. 6 "Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock in Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, that the people may drink." And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 So he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the contention of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, "Is the LORD among us or not?"
The Lord Stood upon that Rock
Words fail to capture the beauty and grace of this moment. In giving them water, the Lord was setting forth Christ to their faith and hope. What was emphasized at that moment was that God would provide for them. He told Moses to go ahead of the people with some of the elders. He was to take his rod, so that the people would again know that God would provide for them, not Moses. The Lord promised to stand before Moses on the rock in Horeb. There was a visible manifestation of the Lord there, likely the shekinah glory. Perhaps he even appeared to them in bodily form, as he did earlier to Abraham. Given Paul’s later testimony in 1 Corinthians 10, we are justified to conclude that that rock was Christ pre-incarnate, the eternal Son of God, already then the Mediator of the covenant and the Word of God to his people. The only water that would truly satisfy them was the promised Savior of the world. The physical water they would receive came from his generosity and power, and they must look higher than the relief of their material needs. That generation never learned this lesson, but these things were written for our admonition and encouragement (Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6). We have earthly needs, and our Savior supplies them. We must not yield to our cravings but trust him to supply our legitimate needs. He saves and secures us body and soul.
Moses Commanded to Strike the Rock
The Lord commanded Moses to strike the rock. Since the rock was spiritually Christ (1 Cor. 10:4), then there was a picture here that we receive the living water only because Jesus Christ was struck down for us. This interpretation is not giving way to speculation or allegory. Upon the authority of the Holy Spirit, it is what Moses’ actions truly symbolized. There was a picture and promise in the wilderness that the Lord would supply his people with the living water from his throne, the Holy Spirit and all his graces (John 7:37-38), through the death of the Son of God. He must be struck down for us, otherwise we must eternally perish for all our provoking of God’s majesty, distrust of his goodness, and rebellion against his government over our lives. The people were thirsty and needed water; the people were rebellious and needed cleansing. Few understood this gospel, but Moses and Aaron did, and likely Joshua and Caleb.
But these things were written more for us than for them, for they all perished through unbelief. If we are to follow our God and Savior through the wilderness, we must understand this picture of “the Rock of Ages cleft for us.” This is no sentiment but our salvation. In Israel’s rebellion, we have a mirror in which to behold the horror of our ungrateful and wicked hearts. To make matters worse, we then complain when he chastens and tests us. By his corrections, he intends to humble our pride and make us happy in holiness, but we kick rather than kiss his loving, fatherly hand. What shall happen to us for all our provocations of the Lord’s majesty? We shall perish miserably in hell forever. That the world utterly mocks this should not move us, for we feel in our hearts the truth of the conviction that we have provoked the HOLY ONE to his face and must surely suffer hellfire for our wicked presumption. But then the Lord Jesus Christ comes forward to be voluntarily struck down in our place, to suffer the torments of body and soul that are rightly ours, to suffer our shame and be spit upon, when we deserve for a billion angels to spit upon us forever for our sins against such a loving and merciful and gracious God. But Jesus Christ was struck down in our place and received in his holy soul the sword of justice that we deserve (Zech. 13:7). Only this gospel of a crucified Savior suffering our judgment will break our pride.
Water from the Rock
When Moses struck the rock, water came forth. Let us forsake the attempt to find natural explanations for this: the usual critical theory that there was an underground stream beneath the surface of the rock, and Moses struck it in just the right place so that water came out. If this is true, then the gospel is nothing but a nice story about men and women who have found some psychological help in old religious myths. Water from the rock as the direct and supernatural work of God and deliverance from sin through the satisfaction offered by Jesus Christ the Son of God on the cross go hand in hand. We shall not save the gospel by denying miracle. We shall lose gospel and miracle. We shall not save faith by severing it from the testimony of Scripture; we shall lose both faith and the Bible. What God has joined together, we may not separate, even if we do not always understand how to keep them together in a tidy way. Of course God will test our faith, just as he did Israel’s faith, to see if we will give obedience to his word. But the lesson here is that all our life, including our physical life and needs, is from Christ Jesus being struck down for us on the cross. We have no water, nothing but dry, sin-parched souls and wilderness lives until the water of life, Jesus Christ, flows over our soul, cleansing away our sins, giving us new hearts, and establishing his righteous kingdom in us.
Living, flowing water is often in Scripture a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s gifts and graces, and our Savior’s use of this historical event in the water pouring ceremony in Jerusalem (John 7) indicates that this is primarily what we are to learn from the water. Yes, the Lord promises to feed and clothe us, and this includes giving us water. But higher yet, we have the living water that comes from God’s throne, the seven fold light and life of the Holy Spirit (Rev. 22:1,5). It was this that our Savior promised to those who believed upon his name (John 7:37-38). He called the Spirit the “promise of the Father” and commanded his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for his coming (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4; 2:33). It was the sending and coming and receiving of the Spirit of truth and holiness that Jesus anticipated on that last night (John 14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7). He said it was better for us to have the Holy Spirit indwelling than his physical presence with us.
This is most remarkable and a rebuke to those who refuse to walk by faith but demand God to prove himself to their senses. We have the living record of the apostles in the Scriptures and the church’s sacraments as aids to our senses, but chiefly we have the indwelling Spirit whose daily miracles should leave us astounded. He works righteousness, peace, and joy in us (Rom. 14:17). He produces in our lives the fruits of righteousness (Phil. 1:11). To those who know the Spirit, as Jesus said we would (John 14:17), no other proof is needed beyond GOD WITH US BY THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH AND HOLINESS. That we have grown so cold and ignorant to his presence and work is no fault of his. Israel’s heart was colder than a stone even though they were fed that very morning with manna and were surrounded with the glory cloud of God’s own presence. All the miracles in the world will not move an ungrateful heart. But the Spirit of holiness and truth, uniting us to Christ, confirming his power and presence in our lives, and making us fruitful unto every good work, is the purest, most refreshing living water. And we may ask for more of him (Luke 11:13)!
Tempting and Strife Rebuked
The people drank, and their thirst was quenched. The Lord was a faithful shepherd and provider for them. How horrific to think that they are all now in hell, save for Joshua and Caleb, begging for only a drop of water to give them relief in their torment. God takes care of his enemies, but if his enemies do not repent, they will surely perish. We can have his word to feast upon each week, but unless we are led to the living water to drink, Jesus Christ and all his benefits, we shall perish. Israel’s wickedness was memorialized by naming these places Massah, which means tempting, and Meribah, which means strife. It would be better had those places been called “Faithful and Living Water,” but Israel’s heart was not right with God. He provided for them; he was faithful. They, however, lost the eternal benefit of his faithfulness because they greedily drank down his water but were not moved to repent of their unbelief and murmuring. He gave them their hearts’ desire, but sent leanness to their souls (Ps. 106:15). When the Lord answers our prayers, takes care of us, provided for us, or otherwise blesses us, we must earnestly praise him and share with others the blessings we have found. Otherwise, his goodness will judge us for our ingratitude and presumptuous enjoying of his gifts without devoting ourselves to the Giver. Sadly, this treachery did not die in the wilderness, but is found in us each day whenever we enjoy our Savior’s blood-won blessings but do not devote ourselves more sincerely to his praise and service. In his true disciples, his goodness leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and let it lead us there, so that our hearts may be broken with love and amazement at our Savior’s love and the Father’s gift of the Spirit.
He Gave Them Victory (vv. 8-16)
8 Now Amalek came and fought with Israel in Rephidim. 9 And Moses said to Joshua, "Choose us some men and go out, fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand." 10 So Joshua did as Moses said to him, and fought with Amalek. And Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 And so it was, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed; and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses' hands became heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. And Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13 So Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. 14 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this for a memorial in the book and recount it in the hearing of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." 15 And Moses built an altar and called its name, The-LORD-Is-My-Banner; 16 for he said, "Because the LORD has sworn: the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation."
Israel Attacked (vv. 8-10)
The Amalekites were the descendants of Esau, and the antipathy between the heirs of the promise and the vessels of wrath, the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, plays itself constantly in history. There are two cities: the city of God and the city of man, as Augustine recognized, with the city of God, his church and kingdom, ruled by Jesus Christ the mediatorial King, and the city of man ruled by the now-crushed serpent, the devil. Cast out of heaven by the power of Christ’s victory at the cross and resurrection, he is cast to the earth, bound from exercising a universal blindness and tyranny (John 12:31-32; Rev. 20:4), but still malicious in his warfare against the Lamb’s wife, his church (Rev. 12:17). In those days, Satan exercised almost a universal tyranny, under God’s leash, but with his promise given to only a small portion of the human race, the family of Abraham. Thus, all the enemies that attacked Israel were stirred up by the devil. He knew something of God’s plan to save the world through the seed of the woman and tried to stamp out the family of faith before the Messiah could be born. The Amalekites were one such instrument of the devil to seek the church’s destruction.
It is another evidence of God’s wisdom that he would allow his people to be attacked at this particular time. One wonders if he was in a sense mocking the devil or even taunting him – attack my people now, when they are at a very low point, only recently delivered from Egypt, and murmuring against me. Satan is generally aware of the state of the church at any given time and undoubtedly chooses his methods of attacks accordingly. He is at the same time so firmly ruled by God’s wisdom that all his schemes are turned around for the good of the church. Even so, we should not expect Satan’s attacks only when we are ready for them, for he normally attacks when we are not ready, when in unguarded moments we have left the safety of obedience to our Father and are perhaps cold-hearted toward him. This was the situation in Israel when Amalek attacked. Satan’s regular plan is to attack the unwary, the careless, and the worldly minded believer. This is the reason we are so strongly warned to “watch and pray,” to remain on the alert, and to be sober-minded (Matt. 25:41; 2 Cor. 2:10; 1 Pet. 5:8).
Victory by God’s Power (vv. 11-12)
When thirsty, Israel had asked, “Is God among us, or not?” Does he exist? Is he faithful to his promises? Is he present with us? They questioned his promises, his presence among them, almost his very existence. God provided water for them, and he soon allows them to be attacked. This is the way he often works – after a season of provision and relief, he tests our faith – do you believe me now? Have I not proven myself faithful to you? Will you finally trust me? It is evil for us to tempt and provoke him, but he is righteous and wise to throw our faith into the fire. Israel was not ready for a battle. Moses gave instructions to Joshua, here named for the first time. Get a chosen band of men ready. I will go to the top of that hill. The next morning, Moses went there with Aaron and Hur. The real battle took place there. As long as Moses kept his arms raised, Israel prevailed. When his arms wearied and drooped, Amalek prevailed. Aaron and Hur had Moses sit on a stone and held his arms up until evening.
There is a great deal of speculation as to what Moses’ upraised arms signified, but for my part, I take it that he was calling upon the Lord and seeking a favorable outcome from him. This is the reason for upraised arms in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8). It is a posture of dependence, of seeking, and of calling down the power of God through believing prayer to come and fight for us. The significance of this cannot have been lost, at least upon Joshua, who would be Israel’s leading general for the next sixty years. God alone gives victory in battle. The victor is not the strongest, the bravest, or the fiercest. Victory for God’s people is the fruit of seeking his blessing and protection and strength. We do well to remember this. Victory was secured because Moses kept his arms upraised to God, imploring his help, and calling him to keep his promises. When he faltered in his posture and intercession, he was upheld by others. This is the same with us – we must pray, and we must have others pray for us. We must seek a good resolution of every matter from the Lord; we are blessed if others seek the same with us. We are dependent upon one another, even as we are dependent upon the Lord.
Nowhere is a moral lesson drawn from this, but we may surely conclude two things. First, if we are to have victory over our enemies, God must fight for us. If the church is to prevail over heresy and wolves, sleepy and careless disciplines, worldliness and compromise, then the Captain of our salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ, must fight for us. Second, if he is to fight for us, then we must ask him and not stop asking him until he gives us strength to fight with his armor. Too many are still dismissive of prayer, although one may easily trace every significant victory of the church over wolves and persecutors, every season of revival and reformation, to praying saints who would not give God rest. But we allow our arms to droop. We do not fervently ask others to pray for us. For the honor of God in the world, for the building up of the church for whom Jesus shed his blood, ask. We have not because we ask not. And when we falter in our asking, when our spirits grow weary and discouraged, then is the time to seek the help of others. We are fighting the same battle; we are opposed by the same malevolent foe. There is no special reward for making it alone, for making is through one’s own resolve, for making it independently of the body of Christ. In fact, no one will make it in these ways, for this is the broad path of pride and self-reliance. The victory is won in the narrow path of humility and seeking the Lord’s blessing.
Write, Worship, and War (vv. 13-16)
Many wolves still deny that human language and writing are reliable mediums to convey transcendent truth, but God told Moses otherwise. Write this down. It became part of our very story, perhaps the first portions of our Exodus. Make sure you tell Joshua how the battle was won today. He will need to lay up this lesson in heart, for his brave heart is about to be broken and his courage placed upon a forty-year hold due to Israel’s unbelief. Let him never forget that the battle belongs to the Lord. Moses also commemorated the battle by building an altar and calling it Yahweh-Nissi – the Lord is my banner. When God gives victory, seasons of reprieve, help of any kind, he must be praised! And his banner over us is love, the love of our Savior poured out upon Calvary, so that all hope and promise and victory are secured to us by his blood. And his blood obligates us to fight. Israel was to engage in perpetual war with Amalek. Saul failed to do this and lost the kingdom. God will have us fight at all times against sin and Satan (Eph. 6:10-18). He provides us with the armor. Using it in faith is the way we raise our hands to him and unfurl his banner. Yes, Father, you have provided us with the living water from heaven, and now in your strength we shall resist the world, the flesh, and the devil. Give us faith and strength to stand faithfully. In your own time, give us victory. One day, crown us with glory and honor through the merits of Jesus Christ, our Victor and Captain. He redeemed us by his blood to sing your praises and to fight the good fight of faith. We raise our hands to you as Moses did, and are resolved to give you no rest until the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of your glory as the waters cover the seas. Let each disciple be filled with this zeal, constant in these prayers, marked by this consecration, and the Lord will fight for us.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. Explain: a complaining or murmuring spirit is the fruit of unbelief and ingratitude.
2. How is a murmuring spirit a kind of war against God?
3. What does it mean to provoke the Lord? See 1 Corinthians 10:22.
4. How can we make our leaders’/elders’ oversight a joy to them and a blessing to us – Hebrews 13:17?
5. In what sense was Christ the rock? See 1 Corinthians 10:1-4.
6. What was the significance of striking the rock?
7. How are miracle and gospel inseparable?
8. What is the connection between the water and the Spirit?
9. How can God’s gifts become a curse – See Psalm 106:15?
10. Why would the Lord allow them to be attacked at a time of great weakness? Implications for us?
11. What does Moses’ posture during the battle teach us about fighting and victory?