Israel at Meribah

Numbers 20:1‑13  •  20 min. read  •  grade level: 6
(Num. 20:1-131Then came the children of Israel, even the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month: and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. 2And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. 3And the people chode with Moses, and spake, saying, Would God that we had died when our brethren died before the Lord! 4And why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? 5And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink. 6And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto them. 7And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 8Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink. 9And Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as he commanded him. 10And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? 11And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. 12And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. 13This is the water of Meribah; because the children of Israel strove with the Lord, and he was sanctified in them. (Numbers 20:1‑13).)
In the First Epistle of John we are told what God is. " God is light," and " God is love." Here we get these statements illustrated by God's dealings with Moses and Aaron on the one hand, and Israel on the other.
The forty years of wandering were drawing to a close. The thirty and eight years which were to elapse since their rebellion at Kadesh Barnea in the wilderness of Paran, would, ere long, be ran out. The brook Zered, the boundary between, the wilderness and that part of the land eastward of Jordan, which they were to possess, would soon be crossed. And now the fortieth year from the exodus commences with the events spoken of in this chapter, a year so full of subjects of deep interest to the nation at large: during its first month, Miriam died; ere the fourth month had run its course, Israel murmured afresh against God; Moses and Aaron failed in obedience through unbelief, their punishment was announced, and on the first day of the fifth month it commenced to take effect-Aaron died. (Num. 33:38.) The events of their wilderness life after leaving Sinai are soon told. Num. 10:33-xxi. 1 comprise them all. On the part of God, it is a record of patience, grace, and goodness; on the part of Israel, of stubbornness and iniquity, relieved only by their conduct as related in Num. 15:32-3632And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. 33And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. 34And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. 35And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. 36And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones, and he died; as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32‑36), and their vow to the Lord about the Canaanites. (Num. 21) At chapter x. 33 we read of the ark of the Lord going before the camp instead of in their midst, to find them out a resting place, a three days' journey; a beautiful picture of God's thoughtfulness for the people he had redeemed from Egypt, and was leading by the path He had marked out to Canaan. The first stage on their journey, as given in the itinerary of Num. 33, is Kibrothhattaavah. (Ver. 16.) The first notices we have of Israel's conduct after leaving Sinai, are their complaining at Taberah, and lusting for flesh with the mixed multitude at Kibroth-hattaavah, dissatisfied with the miraculous supply God had provided for them in the manna. We next find them despising the pleasant land, and proposing to return to Egypt, and then madly going forth to encounter the armies of the Arnalekites, against God's express command. (Chapter 13;14) God's authority in the person of Moses having been despised by Aaron and Miriam, (chap. xii.,) we have some of the people now following the example set them. Korah and his company seek the priesthood, (chap. xvi. 10,) whilst Dathan and Abiram refuse obedience to Moses. (Chapter 16:12.) The earth opened her mouth to swallow up the congregation of Dathan and Abiram, and the fire from the Lord consumed the company of Korah. With this fresh in their minds, the people on the morrow are found in rebellion, murmuring against Moses and Aaron, saying, " Ye have killed the people of the Lord." (Chapter 16:41.) To this succeeds the murmuring in the passage before us. Their last great sin in the wilderness is related in chapter xxi. Discouraged by the way, loathing the manna, they speak against God and against Moses. On the part of the people then, we read of little else than rebellion and iniquity; on the part of God, we read of patience that never wearied, grace that never tired, goodness that never failed.
Punishments there were, yet the people remained unchanged. The burning at Taherah, the graves at Kibroth-hattaavah, the death of the spies before the Lord, the slaughter at Horrnah, the awful end of Korah and his company, as well as of the congregation of Dathan and Abiram, and the plague which broke out the next day, failed to make any lasting impression on their hearts. When another occasion presented itself the people murmured afresh. In the midst of this picture of a people's iniquity how the character of God shines out. Those who had refused to go up to the land must wander in the wilderness, and die there, but their children shall enter on the promised inheritance. sad, indeed, must this announcement have been, though less, far less, than they deserved. But, to assure them of the fulfillment of His promise, God immediately afterward gives ordinances for their observance, which could only take effect when their children should have entered the land He would give them. (xv.) They may fail, but He cannot; and though the children, by their perverseness of heart, deserve to die like their fathers in the wilderness, they are brought out of it, and do enter on their inheritance at the appointed time. On the 14th day of the first month they left Egypt, and forty years after on the 10th day of the same month they crossed the Jordan. (Josh. 4:1919And the people came up out of Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and encamped in Gilgal, in the east border of Jericho. (Joshua 4:19).) But neither grace nor government makes any permanent impression on the people. Miriam has just died, another testimony to man's sad condition, and the wages of sin; yet, the moment they want water, they are ready, because of this, to give up all hope of the land.
They gather themselves against Moses and Aaron, and chide with Moses,:
" Would God we had died when our brethren died before the Lord; and why have ye brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us into this evil place? It is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink." (Chapter 20:4-6.) But why chide with Moses? Was it that he had once before brought water for them from the smitten rock? Apparently their thoughts here, as often before, could not rise above the instrument. They come not to him as the mediator to intercede with God on their behalf. They turn not direct to God in their trouble, but chide with Moses, and hold him responsible for their distress. A distress it certainly was, and a great one; but they turn not to Him who could relieve them. They first gather together against Moses and against Aaron. They next chide with Moses instead of crying to God and asking Him to help them. God is left out of their thoughts as far as looking up to Him. It is man, Moses, not the Lord, that they are thinking of. How often was this the case in their history in the wilderness. At the Red Sea, at Marah, in the wilderness of Sin, at Rephidim, and now in Kadesh, they find fault with Moses instead of looking to God. But iniquity waxes bolder, and they exclaim, " Would God we had died when our brethren died before the Lord." Thirty-seven years had elapsed since that event; for of the ten spies is it said, " They died by the plague before the Lord." (Num. 14:3737Even those men that did bring up the evil report upon the land, died by the plague before the Lord. (Numbers 14:37).) Unbelief working within leads to such thoughts as these. Their brethren had died as a judgment of God. They declare their readiness to have died then. What profit was it to have wandered so long in the wilderness? What availed them all their marches in the desert? The land for which they left Egypt seemed as far off as ever. " Better to have died," they imply " at once," than have dragged on such a weary burdensome existence. Thus unbelief reasons, if it can be called reason; it can only judge by sight. The way was long, but who had made it so? What might have been accomplished in eleven days was taking them near thirty-eight years. (Deut. 1:22(There are eleven days' journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir unto Kadesh-barnea.) (Deuteronomy 1:2).) Better, they thought, to have died at once, better to have died long ago, than suffer a little now to be hereafter abundantly recompensed in the land of delight. Death in the wilderness seems preferable to life in Canaan, if it can only be reached by such a path.
But this is not all. Why in the wilderness at all? Full of this, they accuse Moses and Aaron of having brought them up into an evil place with nothing but death before them, instead of the vines, pomegranates, and fig-trees they expected; and they Were the congregation of the Lord. (Ver. 4, 5.) The Lord's people they now call themselves, yet they look not to him in their trouble. When a difficulty is before them they hold Moses responsible; when they want an occasion against him, it is the Lord's people he is thus ill-treating. How inconsistent man is! What blindness if the Lord was their God, if they were His people, why so faithless? Whose arm had smitten the Egyptians, and broken the chains that bound them as slaves? If He was their God, and they were His, how could Moses and Aaron attempt anything against them and succeed? Had He power over the armies of Egypt, and was He powerless before two of His creatures? Besides, who had brought them out of Egypt? They say it was Moses; their fathers had sung that it was Jehovah. (Ex. 15:1313Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed: thou hast guided them in thy strength unto thy holy habitation. (Exodus 15:13).) Then it was for blessing, now it is for destruction. The Lord's people in the wilderness about to perish for want of water, brought there by Moses and Aaron, as if against their will I " Wherefore have ye made us," &c. (Ver. 5.) What dishonor to God in all this, affirming by their words that there was a difficulty too great for Him; and that two of His creatures could prevail against the Lord Jehovah, the Creator of the ends of the earth! What dishonor, too, to God, in preferring Egypt without redemption to the wilderness with it. Death in the wilderness, life in Egypt—anything seems preferable to their present condition.
To what a pitch of iniquity has unbelief brought them! They are ready to part with all they had in prospect, and to return to Egypt. Freedom with the Lord in the wilderness is worse than slavery with the fleshpots in Egypt. They know not the Lord, they have no conception of what He can do. Unbelief cannot apprehend what resources there are in Him. At the Red Sea we see the same spirit, (Ex. 14:11,1211And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? 12Is not this the word that we did tell thee in Egypt, saying, Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it had been better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:11‑12),) indicating that they had no idea of deliverance. All they looked for was death. Thirty-nine years pass away, and we find their children, who witnessed how God had always delivered their fathers, using very similar language. They were truly in a great strait, but God was there. He had a resource they never dreamed of. He had before opened a way in the sea, and delivered them forever from their taskmasters, the Egyptians. But this fails to impress them with a belief in His ability to save them. Fresh difficulties arise, they murmur against Moses, and can see nothing before them but death. The different circumstances bring out the unbelief of their hearts, and show at the same time what Jehovah can do.
There is another phase of unbelief which this history brings out. We may doubt God's power at all to help us as Israel did; or we may doubt His ability to deliver us in any way different from that which He has already made use of. This Moses did. Till they leave Sinai we see him steadfast in his confidence in God. As long as difficulties arose which had never arisen before, he counts on God, and counts truly. He may not know what God will do, but feels assured, when the want is set before Him He will act in delivering power. When, however, a difficulty, similar to that which has been met, has to be solved, he does not understand how God can meet it in any way but the one. What He has done He can do, Moses believed, which the people did not. But his faith fails when a different manner of acting is announced. God delivers His people as He will, varying the manner as He sees fit. This is a truth of deep, practical importance to each one of us.
The waters of Marah were healed by a tree, the waters of Jericho by salt. (Ex. 15:2525And he cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, which when he had cast into the waters, the waters were made sweet: there he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them, (Exodus 15:25); 2 Kings 2:21.) At the first contact with the water by the priest's feet, who bare the ark, the Jordan was divided, and the people passed through as on dry land. Elisha, smites the Jordan with Elijah's mantle, and finds the way made for him to pass over. (Josh. 4; 2 Kings 2) Elijah stretched himself three times on the lifeless body of the widow of Zarephath's son, and he revived. Peter spoke to Dorcas, and she lived. (1 Kings 17:21,2221And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child's soul come into him again. 22And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. (1 Kings 17:21‑22); Acts 9:40,4140But Peter put them all forth, and kneeled down, and prayed; and turning him to the body said, Tabitha, arise. And she opened her eyes: and when she saw Peter, she sat up. 41And he gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. (Acts 9:40‑41).) The hosts of Israel have water from the smitten rock at Rephidim. The allied armies of Judah, Israel, and Edom find ditches filled with water without wind or rain in the wilderness of Edom. (Ex. 17; 2 Kings 3)
Moses was to learn the resources at the command of Jehovah. When God promised Israel flesh for one day in the wilderness of Sin, he believed He would make it good. But when He promises them meat a whole month, his faith is staggered. (Num. 11:21,2221And Moses said, The people, among whom I am, are six hundred thousand footmen; and thou hast said, I will give them flesh, that they may eat a whole month. 22Shall the flocks and the herds be slain for them, to suffice them? or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, to suffice them? (Numbers 11:21‑22).) But the Lord performed His promise. A wind went forth from the Lord that night and brought quails from the sea; and the people stood up all that day, and all that night, and all the next day, and gathered the quails. So in the passage before us. The rock had been smitten before ere the water flowed out. He thinks it must be smitten again. Do we not know something akin to this in our individual experience? We may trust God to a certain point, because He has acted before. But the circumstances are a little different, and we do not trust Him to act as He will. We would dictate the manner of acting, indicate the way of deliverance, instead of leaving it with Him to originate His plan, and carry out His design. We, thus, practically limit God as Israel did. (Psa. 78:4141Yea, they turned back and tempted God, and limited the Holy One of Israel. (Psalm 78:41).)
The people want water. We never read of their wanting manna, after it commenced to fall, till they could eat of the old corn of the land. That never failed throughout their wilderness existence. Food to support life, heavenly bread, was always supplied. They might loathe it, and ask for flesh; but they never had to cry a second time for bread. Not so with the water; that did fail, till God intervening supplied it in His own way. Food for our souls will never fail us; but with the refreshment by the way which the Holy Spirit gives, the case is different. That may stop to make us realize our dependence on the Lord, then it will flow out again. The Spirit may be grieved, then refreshment will cease, till, the soul being restored, the stream can burst out anew. This the people learn in type, and we in its literal exactness. God knew their thirst, and He would satisfy it. They may murmur against Moses and Aaron; chide with the former, and forget what God has done-He answers all with patience and grace. This is worthy of notice. Before they came to Sinai, as each fresh need was felt, they murmur, and He gives what they want in pure grace. But, after they have promised at Sinai to obey His will, when they murmur again, judgment befalls the rebellious among them. Not so here, He sends them no judgment. They were ready with this difficulty before them to give up the land of promise, and renounce all the privileges of redemption. He bears with them, showing that He is love. He gives them water, and that abundantly. It is no scanty supply: " They drank and their beasts also." (Ver. 11.)
But how can it come out of the rock? At Rephidim the rod of Moses, associated with God's power, as displayed in Egypt and at the Red Sea, is the instrument selected. Now the rod of Moses gives place to the rod laid up before the Lord. (See Num. 17) Moses is now to speak to the rock and the water will flow out. Why this change? What is the use of the rod if he was only to speak to the rock? The Lord would teach a lesson here, not to Israel only but also to us. The rod was the rod which budded, blossomed, and yielded almonds; a mere rod cut off from the root from which it derived its life, apparently dead, yet giving evident proofs of vitality in itself. By it God had settled forever in Israel the question whom He would choose to draw nigh unto Him. This rod typified priesthood, the priesthood of the Lord, as exercised in resurrection. Armed with this they were to present themselves before the rock, and speak to it. That rock, we are told, typified Christ. (1 Cor. 10) Water by the way for His people must come from the Lord, but He must be smitten ere it can flow. Once smitten the rock needs no smiting again, for He died but once, and lives for evermore. But the stream it contains can only come as ministered through the Lord, the priest on high. Without the rod no water could come. Without the Lord no blessing can reach us. It was from the rock the waters came, It is from Christ we have the living water. (John 4) It was in the rock the fountain was. It is in Christ all our blessings are centered; and the Holy Ghost, typified by the water, (John 7:3939(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.) (John 7:39)) sent from Christ, ministers of Christ to our souls. It is the Lord as priest His people need for conveyance through the wilderness till they rest in the land. We see this illustrated in Israel's history. (Num. 27;16-20. 21.)
But Moses disobeys and smites the rock. The disobedience of one does not deprive the rest of the water. God gives that in grace, only the more conspicuous for the failure of Moses and Aaron. He is love. But He is also light. Hence, while giving Israel what they want, acting towards them in grace, He deals with Moses and Aaron in government. " He spice unadvisedly with his lips." The Lord will not let it pass. " And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron. Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them." (Ver. 12.) What a view this gives us of God.
Moses, with whom He could speak face to face, as with a friend, who had been admitted to such close intercourse with God as none before him had enjoyed, and Aaron the saint of the Lord, (Psalm evi. 16) are not allowed to enter that land to which they had so long looked forward. But Israel, rebellious Israel, who " often provoked him in the wilderness, and grieved him in the desert," do enter in. To sinners He will act in pure grace. But His saints, those who are privileged to come nigh, must learn that He deals in government. Perfect grace, perfect holiness-such is our God, and such we see Him here. Aaron indeed had sinned twice before-once in the matter of the calf, and once in the rebellion with Miriam. But Moses till now had been obedient. His faith might be weak before, but He had obeyed the Lord's commands. Here he disobeys, and judgment is immediately pronounced on both. These two who had before interceded for Israel, and that successfully, when the anger of the Lord had been kindled against them, are now the only ones made to feel the effect of disobedience. What a view it gives of His character. He deals in grace, but He acts in government.
This opens up a very solemn question for His people in all times-government in His house. " I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me," He had said before. (Lev. 10:33Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:3).) The two who had the closest access to God, the mediator and high priest, are the two on whom the governmental dealings of God here fall- " Because ye sanctified me not." Their faith failed, they disobeyed. Occupied more with the sin of the people and the authority with which he has been invested than with God's grace, Moses exclaims, " Hear, now, ye rebels, must we fetch you water out of this rock?" How far below the thoughts of God do His people often fall. God did not upbraid Israel; He did not show His anger. He heard their complaints, witnessed their sin, but acted in grace. How slow are we to learn what He is. But if we fail to sanctify Him, He will be sanctified. Israel strove with the Lord. He gave them water. He is sanctified in them. Perfect in His grace towards Israel, He yet visits on Aaron and Moses their disobedience. He can forgive sin, but He will chasten His children. 1 Cor. 11:30; James 5:14,1514Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: 15And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. (James 5:14‑15); 1 John 5:1616If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. (1 John 5:16); Heb. 12:7-117If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? 8But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. 9Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? 10For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. 11Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. (Hebrews 12:7‑11), tell the same tale. It may be death as here, (see 1 Cor. 11; 1 John 5,) or it may be temporal trouble of some kind, out of which we are delivered, whilst in this life, through the intercession of others. (James 5:15,1615And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. 16Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. (James 5:15‑16); 1 John 5:1616If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. (1 John 5:16).) Miriam smitten with leprosy was healed at the intercession of Moses. " The prayer of faith shall save the sick." Moses and Aaron must die ere Israel pass over Jordan. " For this cause many sleep." " There is a, sin unto death." In this, dispensations make no difference. God's character is the same. He may reveal more of Himself to one age than He did to a former age, but His character is unchanged. If He deals in grace, which far surpasses human thoughts or man's expectation, He acts in government. While forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, He will by no means clear the guilty. He pardoned the iniquity of the people at the intercession of Moses, but dealt with them in government. (Num. 14:20,2220And the Lord said, I have pardoned according to thy word: (Numbers 14:20)
22Because all those men which have seen my glory, and my miracles, which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have tempted me now these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; (Numbers 14:22)
.) He does forgive, He does save sinners, but the wheels of His government still revolve; nothing can turn them aside. If admitted into His house we are subject to His governmental dealings in a way, perhaps, of which few are aware. " Holiness becometh thine house, O Lord, forever." Do we admit this? Do we act as if we did? For we are told, " You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore, I will punish you for all your iniquities." (Amos 3:22You only have I known of all the families of the earth: therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. (Amos 3:2).)
We should have been disposed to have punished Israel and spared Moses and Aaron. God spared the former, for He is gracious; He visited the disobedience of the latter, for He is holy. Love and light, such is our God. We bless Him that He is love; we should fear Him because He is light. " There is forgiveness with thee that thou mayest be feared." (Psa. 130:44But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared. (Psalm 130:4).) " As he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation: because it is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy. And if ye call on the Father, who, without respect of persons, judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear." (1 Peter 1:15-1715But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; 16Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy. 17And if ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man's work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear: (1 Peter 1:15‑17).) Who are we to fear? The Father who has redeemed us with the precious blood of the Lamb, showing at once His grace and holiness. If partakers of the former He would have us partakers of the latter. He may chasten us, deal with us here in government when the question of salvation has been settled, but it is that " we may be partakers of his holiness." (Heb. 12:1010For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. (Hebrews 12:10).) However great our privilege, however rich the grace of which we are partakers, and free and rich it is beyond man's conception, we are never set free from obedience, we are ever responsible to do His will. We are elected " through sanctification of the Spirit unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ." (1 Peter 1:22Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:2).) He delights in grace, He is sanctified in showing it; but His nature, His character, never changes—He cannot deny Himself. We are to be holy because He is holy.