Sometimes Christians wonder about where Christ was during the Old Testament times. Hopefully, I’ve done an adequate job of pointing him out as we’ve journeyed through Exodus. As one commentator wrote:
We saw [Christ] in the birth of Moses—the baby in the basket who was born to be the savior. We saw him at the burning bush, where Moses met the Great I Am. We also saw him in all of God’s signs and wonders. The finger of God in the plague of gnats pointed us to Jesus and his miracles. The plague of darkness reminded us of the black hours he suffered on the cross. Then we saw Jesus at the Red Sea, where God’s people were baptized from death into life. We saw Jesus in the wilderness too. The sweet desert springs refreshed us with his living water, and the manna tasted like the true bread from Heaven that gives life to the world. The history of Israel’s deliverance is the story of our own salvation in Christ (Ryken, 446-7).
So once again, as we head into another story from the book of Exodus, we’re going to find spiritual lessons for our daily walk with Christ—indeed, we’ll find Christ himself.
THE PROBLEM: NO WATER TO DRINK
Exodus 17:1 And all the congregation of the children of Israel journeyed from the wilderness of Sin, after their journeys, according to the commandment of the LORD, and pitched in Rephidim: and there was no water for the people to drink.
Although the location is uncertain, the general consensus is that “Rephidim” was located roughly thirty miles southeast of the “wilderness of Sin” and less than twenty miles from the traditional location of Mount Sinai at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula (Exodus 19:1 seems to place it very close to Mount Sinai).
Again, an issue involving the basic necessities of life came up, “there was no water for the people to drink.”
The fact that it says that they journeyed to this place “according to the commandment of the LORD” (cloud by day, pillar of fire by night) means that the Lord God led them to this very place with no water to drink.
Once again, then, the Lord was testing the Israelites to see how they would respond. Most of them had the wrong response, one had the right response.
THE WRONG RESPONSE: COMPLAINING AGAINST
Exodus 17:2 Wherefore the people did chide with Moses, and said, Give us water that we may drink. And Moses said unto them, Why chide ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt the LORD?
Exodus 17:3 And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?
Like in the last chapter, the Israelites turned on Moses.
“the people did chide with Moses”—to chide someone today might be just a gentle ribbing about an issue. The Israelites, however, seriously quarreled with Moses.
“the people murmured against Moses”—An Old Testament Hebrew dictionary says of “murmured:”
The word describes hostile complaining, strong words of discontentment, angry rejection, or verbal attacks of a dissatisfied people (VanGemeren, 781).
Now, here’s the thing. The Israelites had been led to this place by a “pillar of fire and of cloud,” by “the commandment of the LORD,” so they had to have known that this was where the Lord wanted them.
Yet who do they complain against? Moses. Now, granted, he is their human leader—the shepherd—but they complained against him (also in Exodus 16:2), not to him.
There’s a difference, of course. They would have been right, I think, if they had come to Moses and said, “There’s no water here, what are we to do? What does the Lord intend?”
The Israelites simply had the wrong attitude. Moses reveals their attitude when he asks, “Why chide ye with me? wherefore do ye tempt the LORD?”
Complaining, especially when it’s done with such an attitude, reveals a person’s heart. Moses said, that in essence, that they were tempting (or testing) the Lord. When you test the Lord, there’s some doubt involved about his ability to care for you.
Later, we learn that Moses named the place as a reminder of their testing the Lord:
Exodus 17:7 And he called the name of the place Massah [i.e., testing], and Meribah [i.e., contention], because of the chiding of the children of Israel, and because they tempted the LORD, saying, Is the LORD among us, or not?
The lesson for us is that, as one pastor put it, “our dissatisfaction shows that we are disappointed with God” (Ryken, 448). Is this true? If so, what does it mean for how we live our lives? How often are we dissatisfied in life? What things dissatisfy us?
When we are discontent or dissatisfied, it shows that we aren’t content with what the Lord has provided. Or, as in the case of the Israelites, we don’t trust that he will provide.
How should we respond when we are dissatisfied? Moses has the right attitude when he goes to God:
THE RIGHT RESPONSE: COMPLAINING TO
Exodus 17:4 And Moses cried unto the LORD, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me.
When “Moses cried unto the LORD” the word used to describe his cry is vastly different from “murmured” or “chide.” His cry to the Lord has the right attitude, of helpless dependence on the Lord, of a trust that the Lord knows what to do. Accordingly, his cry is a true prayer and not simply a complaint (cf. Exodus 15:22-26).
While Moses did take his prayer to the right person, we can’t be certain of his attitude. Some think that his words sound almost like grumbling. I am not sure.
Certainly, there’s fear in his words. He said “they be almost ready to stone me.” He wasn’t just speaking figuratively, leaders in ancient days were not above finding themselves at the bottom of a pile of rocks because of angry followers, especially if they perceived him to be a threat to their personal welfare.
But whatever the case, Moses went to the right person and with the right question: “What shall I do unto this people?” which was a far cry from the demand of the people, “Give us water that we may drink.” Their fear caused them to demand; Moses’ fear caused him to ask God.
It’s alright to bring our difficulties to God, even if they may be coming from fear or doubt. Indeed, it is to God that we must bring them, for it shows our dependence on him.
THE LORD’S RESPONSE: WATER FROM THE ROCK
Exodus 17:5 And the LORD said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go.
God tells Moses to get in front of his people, perhaps near where the pillar of cloud and fire stood. He’s to take the “elders of Israel” with him as witnesses and the “rod” that he used to smite the Nile river during the plagues in Egypt.
The Lord was being gracious here to Moses and standing up for the leader he had chosen for the Israelites. When the miracle took place, they would see that Moses was the man that God chose to work the miracle through.
Exodus 17:6 Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb [i.e., Sinai]; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.
Now, later, in Numbers 20, God provided water from a rock as well. It’s very similar to this episode except:
1) It takes place after Moses received the law at Mount Sinai instead of before.
2) Moses was told to speak to the rock to produce water, instead he struck the rock and was condemned by God not to enter the Promised Land for his disobedience. You have to wonder if part of Moses’ thinking was that he struck the rock here, why not there?
By the way, most of our Sunday School pictures of this event involve Moses striking a rock the size of a beach ball. Yet, when you think about it, getting water for two million people and their animals would require a virtual river of water—not a small trickle from a beach ball.
Fortunately, the definition of the Hebrew word for rock ranges from a small rock to a boulder to a rocky hill or even a cliff. Even in English, we might say, “Devil’s tower is quite a rock!”
Later, in the Psalms, we have a description of this event that sounds much bigger than our Sunday School beachball-sized rock description:
41 He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; They ran in the dry places like a river. (Psalm 105:41)
I envision this rock, at the base of the mountains of “Horeb,” as being a rock face. There was a wadi (a river that is dry except for certain times of the year) at this location that could have filled up, giving the Israelites and their animals a large area for them to get a drink.
How does this account relate to Christ? In the New Testament, Paul directly connects Christ and the water from the rock. Speaking of the Israelites in the wilderness, he writes:
3 And did all eat the same spiritual meat; 4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. 5 But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (1 Corinthians 10:3–5)
The “Rock was Christ.” When I was studying the word for rock, I noticed that it is used to refer to God many times (over half of all the uses of that word) in the Bible:
4 He is the Rock, his work is perfect: For all his ways are judgment: A God of truth and without iniquity, Just and right is he. (Deuteronomy 32:4)
2 There is none holy as the LORD: For there is none beside thee: Neither is there any rock like our God. (1 Samuel 2:2)
46 The LORD liveth; and blessed be my rock; And let the God of my salvation be exalted. (Psalm 18:46)
But how is Christ like the rock in the wilderness to us? Just as Moses struck the rock and it produced water that saved the Israelites physically, so God struck the rock of his Son to produce our spiritual salvation. Isaiah 53 graphically describes this—
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: The chastisement of our peace was upon him; And with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)
Then, Jesus is also like the rock in the wilderness because what happened when he was struck on the cross?
34 But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. (John 19:34)
Then, we also remember what Jesus said about him being the water of life:
14 But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:14)
So just as the rock in the wilderness was salvation for the Israelites in a physical sense (and maybe even a spiritual sense if it renewed their faith in the Lord that he would provide), so Christ is our Rock that produces the life-giving water for our salvation. All we need to do is reach out in faith and drink of it.
Ryken, Philip Graham, and R. Kent Hughes. Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005.
VanGemeren, Willem, ed. New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997.