“The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?” But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord answered 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.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Let’s also read an interesting reference to this from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. We’ll start with chapter 9 and verse 24.
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize…For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
1. What was Paul’s great desire? It was to finish the race and win the prize. What does he say to Timothy? “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
What was his great fear? That he would preach to others and himself be disqualified. There is a difference between being disqualified and losing your salvation. The way I read Paul makes me believe he was not concerned about his being lost in the end but being disqualified. In the same way he talks about works – even good works – being wood, hay and stubble that are burned up by fire yet a person is saved even though suffering loss.
Here in Corinthians he draws our attention to Exodus 17 because there are some examples that are relevant to the church. There are some warnings from the Old Testament that are instructive because their behavior (and sometimes ours) is similar to that of the wandering tribes of Israel.
“Now, these things occurred as examples, to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did.”
In “Letters From A Self-Made Merchant To His Son” George Lorimer says this: “Some men learn the value of truth by having to do business with liars; and some by going to Sunday School.”
I think Paul was saying to the Corinthians they were more like the former than the latter. It would have been better to teach from positive examples but what they needed were warnings about the consequences of their behavior. And their bad behavior was clustered around four things – four temptations. These temptations are not unique – to them or us. I suspect they even included Paul and were part of his concern he would be disqualified. These are temptations that probably never go away.
We cannot avoid temptations but we can overcome them. As Billy Graham said, “I cannot stop a bird from flying over my head but I can keep it from building a nest in my hair.” Temptations, as Paul says, literally seize us. James says they entice us. There are probably some things that are less tempting over time – like losing our taste for certain things – but these basic temptations are with us for life. What are they?
a. Idolatry: While it may be setting our hearts on evil things it can also be setting our hearts on good things that then become evil things. Oswald Chambers writes plenty about Christian workers who worship their work and I suspect that is true for many. Whenever something that is intended for good becomes too large in our lives it becomes an idol that pushes out other good things. St. Augustine called them “disordered loves” in that we place them above what we should love even more. Another way of saying it is, ““They worshipped worthless idols and became worthless themselves.”
b. Sexual Immorality: As we’ve talked about before, this does not go away over time. Immorality is almost always a substitute for genuine intimacy with another person.
c. Grumbling: This is more than whining or complaining. It is discontent that leads to “growling” and then violence. It is the sound a dog makes before he rushes you. It is even sometimes translated as “ambush” so it is the sound we make intending to do someone harm. As you know I was in the Dominican Republic a couple of years ago. The air conditioning was not working and it was hot in the rooms. Some of us whined. Some of us complained. One person in particular went on the attack with the hotel staff. He growled and threatened to get them all fired if they didn’t fix it. He was like a dog off his leash. Everyone got moved to other rooms but we told the staff they had better get checked for rabies.
d. Testing God: Essentially, this means telling God he needs to prove himself by our standards – whatever those standards are. For some, it means showing himself to be real intellectually and to remove all doubt. For others, it means rescuing us from distress or blessing us or protecting us. We all have a standard by which we score God and determine whether or not he “is among us” or not. As Paul says earlier in the book, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom.” We are all this way at times. Of course, the ideal for which God is moving us over time is this from the Screwtape letters. “Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
2. Now, let’s turn to Exodus 17.
a. God brought them to Rephidim intentionally. They did not stumble on it themselves. It was one of the places to which he led them in the desert. “They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water.”
A couple of things jumped into my mind when I read this.
First, Rephidim means “rest”. God brought them to a place that said “rest” but there was no water. In the desert it does not make sense to stop at a place advertising rest with no water. A person can go three weeks without food but only three or four days without water. No water in the desert is a serious matter. It is life threatening. To be led to a place of rest that is potentially fatal is either a cruel hoax or a serious mistake. God led them there on purpose. They had their hearts set on water and there was none.
We’ve probably all been in a place to which we’ve clearly been led but it is dry. We thought the motel sign said “Success – Vacancy” or “Happiness – Exit Now.” All the signs led us to pull off but when we got there it was the Bates Motel out of Alfred Hitchcock – a nightmare. How could God do this? How could we have misread the signs?
Second, what was their response? Exactly what my travel companion did. They began to show their teeth, growl and then threaten. They not only wanted rest – they wanted what they could not have. They wanted the impossible and they wanted it immediately. If they didn’t get it they were going to hurt someone. Wanting more of something is one thing. Wanting what is scarce is worse. Wanting and demanding what is impossible is deadly. No faith. No initiative to find water. No patience. No prayer or crying out – just a howl that Moses was going to lose his job…and probably his life.
We’ll look at this later but I do believe God takes us to certain places that are “dry holes” just to help us recognize the real thing when we see it or to increase our desire for the real thing. It’s not a mistake. It’s a warning about what we are wanting out of life and he needs to show us what it is when we get there.
Of course, it’s also true that we can be sent to a place of rest that is nothing like what we intended. It seems we are abandoned and dry but God says, “This is a place of rest if you can only see it.” There is nothing here that you expected but it is a rest for your soul in ways you could not have imagined. It is a rest with no provision except total dependence on God. It is the last place you would expect…and that’s the point. God’s intent is never temporary relief. Whatever he does is designed to move us toward himself by whatever means.
b. Moses does not grumble or murmur. He cries out. As you might expect, the word for “cry out” is used more times in the book of Exodus than anywhere else in the Old Testament. Moses does not find a consultant or read a book or try to reason with the people and make them happy. He doesn’t say, “Look, I am just as thirsty as you are.” Over and over again he cries out to God.
I like what S. Lewis Johnson, the long time Bible teacher at Believer’s Chapel in Dallas would say about this:
“Now, let’s for a few final thoughts regarding the nature of this remedy that the Lord God provided for the children of the Israel and I think we’ll see further illustration of the spiritual truth. First of all, this was not a human remedy, it was a supernatural remedy. In fact, the Lord didn’t say to Moses, now Moses tell them to forget all about the thirst that they’re feeling. He didn’t say, develop some new purposes in life. He didn’t say what you need is a new ritual and if you’ll go through a new ritual, some things will happen for you. He didn’t say improve your mind. He didn’t say, really take a look into what makes for an integrated personality and if you have an integrated personality you will find that you won’t care about the thirst. No, none of that is the recommendation, no recommendation of enjoying the pleasures of life or enjoying the riches of life or getting education or religion. They needed something more fundamental than all of those things that people some how or another think that we really need. We need something more fundamental, we need the forgiveness of the sins, we need deliverance from the penalty and guilt of our condemnation, we need deliverance from ultimate hellfire. All of the attempts to in a sense paper over human need are ways by which ultimately we deny important truths in the word of God.”
c. How does God respond? “The Lord answered 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.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.”
In a sense, it was the same message he gave Elijah when he had retreated to the cave when his life was threatened. Look at 1 Kings 19:
“And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.” The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus.”
“Get out in front of the people.” “Go back the way you came.” They are both counterintuitive but absolutely essential. Both are dangerous and both are necessary. This is what it means to lead.
d. Taking the elders with you. It’s not enough to do this the way Moses had done it before when he went up into the mountain to meet God and receive the commandments. This time God is going to appear…but with witnesses. He is not only going to provide water but do it in such a way that glorifies him and confirms his choice of Moses as the leader. Moses is not just there to provide water for the people. He is there to lead them.
How do they respond? For now, they are convinced but not for long. In Numbers 16 we see that their resentment finally boils over. The same elders who went to see God provide water come to Moses and Aaron. “They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and The Lord is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the Lord’s community….”Isn’t it enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the desert? And now you also want to lord it over us?”
Once they have what they want they only want more. When they see God’s anointing on Moses instead of being grateful they are jealous. My father spoke at a college to the students and later heard that the faculty complained because his talk was not academic enough. Dad thought about it and graciously responded, “Tell the faculty I understand their concerns and I also realize that their taking a bite out of me is the only taste of success they will ever have.”
When they discover that God is “among them” they turn that into a protest of “you are no better than we are.” The pastor who is looking for a happy church needs to read these passages!
3. So, where does this lead? Clearly, Jesus has this passage in mind as do the writers of the New Testament. God’s purpose is to provide in Christ the living water and the true rest for our souls. It does not lead us to more negative examples and warnings but to our genuine destination – Christ.
John 4:14: “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John 7:37: “If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”
Revelation 21:6: “To him who is thirsty I will give drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.”
Matthew 11:29: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
There will be a Rephidim in all our lives. There will be grumblers and rebellious elders who are never pleased. There will be false advertising and dry places and disappointments but we should constantly remind ourselves of the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”