Water shortages are not something we often experience in the UK, are they? We are more familiar with swollen rivers, flooded fields and deluges of rain. But in our Bible reading today, the problem is not a surplus of water, but a shortage. A lack of water that gives the people of Israel an excuse to grumble, and causes their leader, Moses, to face some flack. But the water shortage also gives God an opportunity to display his amazing grace.
As we come to our passage today, God is leading Moses and the Israelites through the wilderness en route to Mt Sinai. God is slowly taking the Israelites to the place where he will give them the Ten Commandments and teach them his laws. As they journey through the desert towards their destination, God leads them in a cloudy pillar by day, and a column of fire by night.
For us, God’s guidance can sometimes seem mysterious and difficult to discern. But for Moses and the Israelites, God’s led them “from place to place” in a very visible and miraculous way (v.1).
Verse 1 of our passage today tells us that God lead the Israelites out of the Desert of Sin to place called Rephidim. But we are told that Rephidim was a place with “no water for the people to drink” (v.1). A place where the life of the Israelites and their livestock seemed under threat. A place of hardship, where Moses and Israel seemed destined to die of thirst.
God may have led us into places like Rephidim in our lives too. Times and places of hardship and uncertainty. Times of ill-health, job-insecurity, relationship difficulty, financial hardship or spiritual dryness.
Such times present us with a choice. Do we decide to continue trusting God, and keep faith in him? Or do we choose instead to doubt God’s goodness, compassion or even his existence?
In other words, when hardship comes (as it surely will) will we put God to the test, or continue to trust in our Heavenly Father’s loving concern for our wellbeing?
Unfortunately the Israelites made the wrong choice in the face of hardship. Rephidim was where the people of Israel grumbled against God and caused Moses much grief. But it was also the place where God showed them much grace. Grumbling and grace – let’s look at both in turn…
Israel’s big mistake: Grumbling against God!
In a move that would make even Victor Meldrew blush, the Israelites respond to their arrival in Rephidim by moaning, quarrelling and complaining against Moses. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and our livestock die of thirst?” they complain (v.3). “Is the Lord among us or not?” they ask (v.7). Faced with this barrage of criticism, poor Moses is exasperated. He cries out to God “‘What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me!” (v.4).
A moment’s reflection would have shown the Israelites that they had no need to grumble or be anxious. They should have trusted God to give them the water they needed. They should have learnt by now that where God leads, he provides:
• For example, if the Israelites had remembered back just a few short months, they would have recalled how God had miraculously freed them from Egypt. Would God really have sent ten plagues against Pharaoh and parted the Red Sea just to let them die of thirst in the desert? Hardly!
• And would God then have shown the Israelites his glory in an awesome cloud and a fiery pillar simply to send them to an early grave? No chance!
• And most recently, God had already miraculously provided food for the Israelites in the desert. As we heard last week in Exodus chapters 16, God had given Moses’s people manna and quail to eat. There was absolutely no reason to think that he would abandon his people now.
So although they directed their complaint against Moses (v.3), it is really God that the Israelites are complaining about. It is really God who’s competence they are questioning. Because it is God, not Moses, who has led them out of Egypt and provided for their every need so far.
That’s why Moses says in the same breath: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”(v.2). Moses sees that it is God, not him, whom the Israelites are really rebelling against. It’s no surprise Moses renames the place Massah (meaning ‘testing’) and Meribah (meaning ‘quarrelling’) because it was there that they tested the Lord and grumbled against him.
God’s gracious response: Water from a rock!
So how does God respond to his grumbling people? Does he abandon the Israelites to their fate, or obliterate them for making a big mistake? No. Wonderfully he shows them grace and mercy.
Despite their grumbling, God was about to graciously give them what they needed.
God said to 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” (v.5-6).
Moses did what he was told, and astonishingly water began to flow. A staff which had previously made the water of the Nile undrinkable for the Egyptians, now produced drinkable water for the grumbling Israelites. God had graciously provided life-giving water to a wayward, sinful people.
God’s provision of water for the Israelites is a wonderful picture of the work of Christ, over a thousand years later. Like the stone struck in the wilderness, Jesus was also struck to save a sinful people when he was nailed to a cross. His death and resurrection has released a torrent of life-giving water for us. God’s gracious forgiveness and everlasting friendship is now on offer to anyone who wants it, just as he gave thirst-quenching water to every Israelite who needed it.
A lesson for us: Guard your heart!
But what if we are already Christians? What if we have already received life-giving water from Christ? What lasting lesson does this Old Testament story have for us? Thankfully the answer is also given in Bible. So often tricky or obscure parts of the Bible are explained or applied for us elsewhere in the Bible. So often we see that ‘Scripture interprets Scripture’. In this case, Hebrews chapter 3 comes to our aid. It tells us to avoid making the same mistake as Israel did in the desert. We must not ‘harden our hearts’ against God and ‘rebel’ against him. We must not put the Lord to the ‘test’ and grumble against him (Heb 3:7-9).
That’s a hard message to hear, because I expect all of us have at times been tempted to grumble against God. Tempted to complain that he hasn’t given us a big enough house, a nice enough car, a fit enough physique, a more satisfying career or whatever. But however tempting it might be, such grumbling is never justified.
Grumbling against God is never necessary because he is our Heavenly Father. His love for us is continuous, and his knowledge of our needs is totally complete. God won’t ever forget about us or overlook what we need. He may not always give us what we want, but he will always give us what we truly need. That’s the lesson the Israelites should have learnt in the desert, and the one we too need to take on board.
So how do we avoid making the same error as the Israelites? How do we flee from sin and keep believing in God’s goodness? How do we ‘guard our hearts’ and keep faith in God?
Here are some quick suggestions from Scripture:
As I finish, I hope we’ve seen today that in times of hardship we face a choice. To trust God or grumble against him. In our passage today Israel made the wrong choice. Despite all the evidence of God’s care and concern for them, they rebelled against him.
The challenge for us is to avoid making the same mistake. We are to remember God’s past blessings and look forward to his future promises. And in the meantime we are to encourage one another and turn to the Lord in prayer. As Israel discovered in the desert, God is gracious and generous, always ready to help and sustain us. All we need to do is ask – so let’s pray…
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