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. 2 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?” 3 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?” 4 So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 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. 6 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. 7 And he called the name of the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7)
One of the reasons that each of us are here today is because many years ago, God opened up a rock and brought water forth from it, so that the people of Israel would not die of thirst in the wilderness. This is one of the many gracious miracles along the way by which God preserved the people from whom He would bring about our incarnate Redeemer, Jesus Christ. We are also, each one of us here, because the Word of God is true and powerful, God indeed brought forth water from a rock, in the wilderness, just as His Word says. It is not a myth, hyperbole, fabrication, or delusion. It is the true telling of history, a history in which the God of heaven and earth intervened to show His power in preserving His people.
Since God’s Word is true and He has indeed done wondrous things in History to dumbfound the pride of man, then He can do wondrous things in our lives. Since our God is a God who brought water forth from a rock, then surely He is a God who can change us, and surely He is a God who can provide for His people in every age, in any way He so chooses. As we head into a new year, we are reminded that we do not serve an impotent God. We do not serve a deist God who sits back and does nothing in our world. We serve a God who is actively involved in His world, in History, in time, in each and every passing year – each day, hour, minute, and second, in every place, is in His hands, and happens because He has decreed the end from the beginning. Our God is not only active in history, as if it were going on, and He intervened from time to time. No, our God has decreed every single thing, every moment of History, and He upholds all of it. So if He wants to make water come forth from a rock, He may do so, and He has.
The Miraculous Provision
Having said that, let us dwell a moment further upon this first point of God’s miraculous provision. Once again, in a short span of time, Israel has been struck with the need for water. Last time, they came to bitter waters, which God turned sweet for them. This time there is no water, just a rock. So God makes water flow from the rock. What kind of God continually leads His people to places where there is no good water? A God who can bring water forth from a rock.
We don’t know where God is going to lead us all this year. We don’t know in what ways we will be tested this year. But let it be settled in our hearts that whatever may come, God is worthy of our trust, no matter where He leads. No matter what circumstances arise, let us remember what Matthew Henry says, “God can open fountains for our supply where we least expect them.”
Sin and Mercy
Next, notice that, once again, this is not only a matter of Israel having a need and God making a provision. It is also, most fundamentally, a matter of Israel having sin, and God having mercy. Once again the people grumble against Moses, against Aaron, and against God who brought them out of Egypt. Once again they accuse their leaders of bringing them out there to die in the wilderness. And this sin of grumbling and bitterness continues to escalate into serious rebellion, revealing that you can take the slave out of Egypt, but it is much harder to take the Egypt out of the slave. They have not yet learned to trust God despite the miraculous power He has continually displayed on their behalf. The flesh dies hard. So here, not only is there grumbling, but there is another Hebrew word used, which is translated as quarreling. The people quarreled with Moses. Not only this, but apparently it was to the extent that Moses feared for His life, thinking the people were ready to stone him. So again, we see that where sin is not forsaken, it increases. In fact, the rebellion here is so great that it is documented elsewhere in Scripture, and remembered as a serious offense.
Psalm 95, around verse 7-9, “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.”
You see, their sin was done in the face of so much that God had just done for them. It was sin committed in the face of having received so much mercy, so much protection, and so much blessing. When you sin in the face of so much light and blessing, it is clear, as Psalm 95 says, that your heart is hardened. This was just the problem with Pharaoh, he hardened his heart, so God completely humbled him. The Israelites show that they are still slaves at heart to Egypt, following in Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, despite all that they have seen from Yahweh. And so it says, they put God to the test. And we know, as Jesus quoted the Scripture to Satan in the wilderness, as it is written, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.” Now when Jesus quotes that Scripture to Satan, do you know what Scripture He is quoting? It’s Deuteronomy 6:16. And do you know the rest of Deuteronomy 6:16? It says, “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” This is a monumental moment of sin and rebellion against God.
Yet, how does God respond? Does He destroy them? Strike them from heaven? Crush them with the rock? Drown them in the water? No, none of those things. Instead, God has mercy upon them. God graciously provides miraculous and abundant water for them from an impossible situation. He is patient and long-suffering. He isn’t just a little bit merciful to them, giving them just enough to keep them alive, and having just enough grace not to destroy them. Rather, He is overflowing with mercy toward them. Hear Psalm 105:40-42, “They asked, and he brought quail, and gave them bread from heaven in abundance. He opened the rock, and water gushed out; it flowed through the desert like a river. For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant.” His mercy and grace gushed out! It was so abundant that it turned the wasteland into a river, as it were. When the Lord gives grace, He gives abundant grace. When the Lord gives mercy, He gives mountains of mercy. And no doubt, this water flow from the rock was certainly more than a little trickle, it was almost certainly more like a great river that pooled into some body of water, in order to be abundant for such a large amount of people and livestock – over 2 million people most likely. And to have mercy and patience on so many people grumbling, quarreling, and accusing you and your servant Moses, is abundant mercy indeed. The river that flowed from the rock, was but a symbol of the abundant mercy God poured out upon His people. The only thing more abundant than the waters at Meribah and Massah was the mercy of God.
And notice what Psalm 105 said about why God had mercy upon them. “For he remembered his holy promise, and Abraham, his servant.” Oh what a firm foundation we have in God. You see, God would not be moved, He would not abandon, He would not forsake His people because God made a promise, and God cannot lie. The grumbling, complaining, and sin of the people would not deter God from accomplishing His purposes with Israel. God made promises to Abraham knowing full-well the lack of thanks He would receive from the people of Israel. When God sets His love upon a people, it cannot be moved. What a firm foundation you have going into a new year that is full of unknowns. If you are Christian, God’s hold upon you, His faithfulness toward you, His love He has for you, is more firm and secure than you can imagine, because of His covenant of grace, for even when you sin, grumble, and complain, God will remember His covenant, and His Son, Jesus Christ, who shed His blood for you, and His love and mercy toward you will not be moved by your sin.
Next, I want you to notice that our passage today is a judicial scene. Understanding this will help us really understand the significance of what happened here. First, as we noted, God is testing Israel, as He does throughout the wilderness. But in this instance, as we read in Deuteronomy 6 and Psalm 95, the Israelites also put God to the test. This of course was rebellion against God, for man is not to test God as if man is in a position of judgment over God. But in their testing of God, the judicial scene begins to unfold. First, they make accusations against God by accusing Moses of bringing them out there to die. We also see their further accusations against God at the end of verse 7 in Exodus 17, “…they tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’”
So the judicial scene begins with an accusation. What the people deserved at their first complaint was for them to be immediately judged by God. But we have noted God’s mercy and patience. But in God’s mercy, what does He do? In a sense, God voluntarily condescends to display, once again, that He is indeed among them. He has Moses, who was threatened with stoning, which is a judicial punishment, go before the people. Judicial punishments in the Old Covenant were to be done in the sight of the congregation. So Moses passes before the people, taking with him the elders of Israel. So the elders represent the authorities and the legal witness among the people. Moses is instructed to take His staff up to the rock. This was His staff of authority and judgment, the same staff that brought judgments upon Egypt, the same staff that struck the Nile in judgment, for example. God then has Moses, instead of striking judgment upon the people, strike the rock. And instead of plague coming from the rock, water comes from the rock, mercy and grace flows from the rock. Judgment is rendered, and the decision is mercy. Now good commentators and preachers will tell you that this rock is a type of Christ, showing us how Christ was struck on behalf of the people, to give them life, to give them rivers of living water. Christ is struck, that we might receive mercy.
Indeed, but it is even more amazing if we read closely. Verse 6, God says to Moses, “Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock…” God says that He will stand there before him on the rock. Do you see this? God is on the rock, and the rock is struck. This is showing us that God is on the rock, the rock is struck, and thus, God is struck! And more specifically, the second the person of the Trinity is struck, for 1 Corinthians 10:4 says that the Rock was Christ. This is amazing! Now Christ was not physically struck here, this is the pre-incarnate Christ, and Christ was the spiritual rock, 1 Corinthians 10:4 says. Nevertheless, we see a very clear display of substitutionary atonement, where God Himself, in the second person of the Trinity, condescends to voluntarily take the judgment on behalf of sinners. The people rebel and accuse God of wrongdoing, so judgment needs to be rendered, but instead of God judging the people with plagues, God goes up, standing upon the rock, and takes the judgment for His people, that they might be preserved by His mercy.
This is a clear and beautiful type of the crucifixion. Indeed this is a preview to the scene of the crucifixion. What was the scene of Christ’s crucifixion? He was falsely accused by the people of Israel. He was brought before the congregation of the people and their elders as judicial witnesses. Like He was elevated upon the rock, so Christ was lifted up before all to see upon the cross, where God Himself, in the incarnate second person of the Trinity voluntarily condescends to take the punishment on behalf of the people, being struck by God upon the cross, so that from Him the rivers of living water would flow, that all may come and drink. And just as the flow of water from the Rock was a great and abundant flow of water, plentiful for all to drink, so the life that flowed from Christ was an abundant flow of mercy, grace, and living water for all to come and drink. It was not a little insignificant trickle, but a great river that flows from Christ, making desert lands lush, as it were.
What we see is substitutionary atonement where Christ takes the punishment on behalf of sinners. But let me ask you this: when Moses struck the Nile with his staff, was it really Moses that brought judgment upon the Nile, turning the water to blood? Moses and his staff was the outward instrument, but the power that brought judgment upon the Nile was God Himself. So was it really the power of Moses that brought water from the rock? He was the outward instrument, but it was God who struck the rock to bring forth water. Thus we see that God struck the Rock. In other words, God struck Christ, God struck His Son, that we might receive life. Hear Isaiah 53:4-5, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 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.”
My limited vocabulary can hardly articulate the weight and the intensity of the gospel, and yet children hear and believe this gospel. The Son, stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God. Isaiah 53:10, “It was the will of the LORD to crush him…” In our sin, we have the audacity to try God and to put Him to the test, and while God judges the Pharaohs and the Egyptians, He does not destroy all who deserve to be destroyed, He comes down Himself, and voluntarily subjects Himself to blasphemous accusations of rebel creatures, and the Incarnate One, before all to see, is struck by God, and what comes out when He is pierced? Rivers of Living water. Oh what mercy and grace flowed from Golgotha to sinners like you and me, and that River was no small strickle, which quickly ran dry, but it runs strong as ever today, that sinners of all nations and tongues may come today and freely drink of everlasting life, without money, and without price, “come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55:1). Why would you not come and drink of the Living Water? Would you stand there and refuse to come, so that you would die in the wilderness, die without a substitute and perish eternally? The heart of man is so hard that many do, but if you hear this today, it doesn’t have to be you, you may come and freely drink of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
Each one of us here deserves to be struck by God in judgment unto eternal damnation. And that will happen if we spurn His Christ. But the living waters are open to you today, where One was struck, that you might drink and live. Boys and girls, do you believe and trust that Jesus was struck by God on the cross, for you and for your sins? Do you see that you deserve punishment for your sins, yet God sent His Son to be punished for your sins, instead of you? I pray that you do.
In Exodus 17 we also see a wonderful picture of what happened when Christ was struck on the cross. After He had yielded up His Spirit, the Roman soldiers come by, and a spear is thrust into His side, pierced by the blade, and what comes out? From His side flows a river of blood and water. Blood is judgment, water is mercy. Blood spilt is death, water that flows is life. In His death, we have life. The Rock was struck, the people drank.
Let’s consider 1 Corinthians 10:4 for a moment more. “…all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” So again we see the presence of Christ in the Old Testament.
The drink that came from the rock was a type of Christ, and with the physical water, by faith, was the spiritual drink that was Christ, for they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. There’s an interesting statement there, that the rock followed them. Now, there is a Jewish myth, that I do believe is a Jewish myth, that says that this physical rock literally followed the people throughout the wilderness. Wherever they would go, the rock would end up there with them. We know that this is a product of Jewish unbelief, for unbelief prefers the things of the flesh over the spiritual reality. Unbelief is carnal and is opposed to true spiritual faith, true eating and drinking. For Paul says that it was the SPIRITUAL ROCK that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, just as we saw with the Manna that remained with the people throughout the wilderness, the spiritual rock remained with the people.
So as you head into a new year, with many unknowns – we know not what the future holds for us – what can you possibly rely upon? When so many things in the world are being shaken, and so many things in the world, or your life, are so uncertain, what can you possibly depend upon? What do you need? We don’t know what this year holds, but we have a Rock that “follows” us, as it were. We have the Rock of Ages. We have the Rock that remains with His people through every year and every age. We have Christ for every day, and Christ for every age. We have the Rock of Ages, the Rock of our Salvation, which is strong and stable and enduring for wherever we may go and whatever may come our way. So this year I pray that each of you would drink more deeply of the spiritual drink, from the Spiritual Rock. The same rock from which our fathers in the faith of old drank. The same Rock from which, by God’s grace, our future sons will drink. For as Moses wrote in the 90th Psalm, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations, or throughout all ages.” For all the evil that Moses saw in his life, for all that He endured, Christ was his Rock, His dwelling place. And there is abundant room for us as well in the Rock of Ages. As the 90th Psalm ends, may it be our prayer this year as well, that God, in His abundant mercy, would “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” For Jesus sake, from age unto age, amen.
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