Text- Ex. 17:1-7
Then all the congregation of the children of Israel set out on their journey from the Wilderness of Sin, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped in Rephidim; but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people contended with Moses, and said, “Give us water, that we may drink.”
So Moses said to them, “Why do you contend with me? Why do you tempt the Lord?”
Children, do you ever complain? Do you ever complain against your parents? Well, it might help you to know that we parents also complain sometimes. We don’t have parents over us any more, but we do have authorities. We have bosses at work. We even complain against our pastors sometimes. We all have leaders in politics: a mayor, a governor, or a president. And, when you look at the big picture, all of us have God over us. Complaining is normal, but it is only normal because of sin. We are all sinners, and we do not like authority. We wish we didn’t have it, and so we complain.
This is what happened to Israel in our story today. They complained against Moses. They contested against him, they grumbled against him, and eventually they came to the point where they wanted to kill him. When Moses takes this to God, the Lord says that really, the people are fighting against God. They are not just complaining against Moses but against God.
This is a problem that has been with people for a very long time. And it is a problem that still tempts Christians today. When you read in the New Testament, St. Paul explaining this passage, he says that this was written for our example. He says that it wasn’t only a story way back when, but that Jesus Christ was there. Paul says, “the rock was Christ.” So what we learn is that things didn’t change all that much. People still got saved in the Old Testament the same way that they do in the New, and Jesus was there in the Old Testament, even if they couldn’t see Him in the same way as in the New. They were supposed to trust God, to follow His instructions, and to see the way in which God was saving them. That was what they should have done. But they didn’t do it because of their sin, which made them complain and become angry.
And this is a problem for us today. God is invisible, and Jesus has ascended into heaven. Do you know who He chose to leave on this earth to guide us? Other people. Yes, He did send His Spirit to lead them, but His Spirit too is invisible. And so we have to trust God. We have to trust God when we have leaders. Rightly listening to authority, even when it’s not fun, is one way that God tests our faith. And He wants us to trust Him.
We will see this morning the way that we can do this. Not by trying really really hard. But by seeing the way that God has already born our burdens and taken our griefs onto Himself in Christ. Seeing a picture of divine sacrifice, so that we can trust God and do the same. And so this morning, let us see Christ in the wilderness, and let us see that Christ in the wilderness is the only way we can over come complaints and faithlessness.
Our text this morning is really three different stories. We didn’t read them all, but just a portion. The sermon text was Ex. 17, but you need to go back to the middle of chapter 15. This is where our narrative really begins. After crossing the Red Sea, Israel is going through the wilderness. There are two different wildernesses. The first is called Shur. Israel goes into it three days, and they are without water. When they finally find water, it is bitter. It’s not fit to drink. And so they complain, saying “What can we drink?” So Moses goes to the Lord, and the Lord turns the water into sweet, drinkable water. That’s the first story.
Then, chapter 16 shows us that Israel is hungry. They move into a second wilderness, the wilderness of Sin. Now, before you jump to conclusions about this name, it does not mean sin as in breaking God’s law. The name is a version of the name Sinai. The Wilderness of Sin basically means the area before Sinai. And there’s no food. So the people complain against Moses. But now their complaint has an edge to it. “Oh we wish we would have died in Egypt.” Now their complaint has an edge to it. They are not only complaining about something that is reasonable to complain about, but they are starting to get bitter. They are getting feisty.
They cry out for food, and so God, again, blesses them. He gives them miraculous food. Quail is just there, good for the pickings. And then there’s manna from heaven. Manna is described as bread from heaven. In Psalm 78:25, it’s called “the food of angels.” It is sweet like honey. Some people try to find out what it is by natural means, but the point is that it is a miracle. The Bible says it’s thin and white, like a wafer, but it’s sweet.
The manna falls, and you can have what you need, but you can’t take more than that. The Lord says that this is a test. Israel can have what they need for one day but no more. They can’t store up for the future. Do you remember what happens if you try to keep some? It spoils immediately. It putrefies, and you can’t eat it. There’s only one exception to this—the day before the Sabbath. God wants them to rest on the Sabbath, even to the point of not collecting manna. So the people are allowed a double portion on Friday, to carry them through the Sabbath. God is answering their requests, but He is also testing them. “You have to trust me.” This is living day to day by the manna and the quail, no more than you can handle in one day.
And then there’s a third story. Chapter 17 was sermon text, and it tells us about the water from the rock. There in the Wilderness of Sin. They are almost in Sinai. If you pay attention to the geography, you can see this. In Ex. 17:7, God says, “I will stand before you on the rock, in Horeb.” Horeb, where have we heard that before? That’s the same mountain that Moses is on at the beginning of Exodus. It’s the mount of the burning bush (Ex. 3:1). This means that we are in Midian, in Jethro’s territory, and we find out that it is the same mountain as Mt. Sinai (Ex. 33:6). This means that the rock from the “water from the rock” story is one of the rocks on the same mountain range as Mt. Sinai.
The people are again thirsty because there is no water. So they complain again. But the language is very strong. It says that they “contended” (Ex. 17:2). That’s a strong word. It means rebellion, sedition, or insurrection. They said, “Why did you bring us here to kill us with thirst?” (Ex. 17:3). And so Moses cries out. In Ex. 17:4 he says, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me!” He’s not being rhetorical here. This is not exaggeration. Moses is telling the truth. He believes that he has a mutiny on his hands, and if you are familiar with the book of Numbers, you will know that this is a real possibility.
The people want to kill Moses. This shows you the nature of Israel. When we get to the New Testament, Stephen says that Israel always killed the prophets. He wasn’t making that up. That had been the whole history of Israel. There was a faithful remnant, but the majority opposed God and tried to kill His messengers.
And so the people want to kill Moses here. He goes to the Lord, and the Lord says, “Go out with the elders, take your rod, and strike the rock in Horeb.” Then He says, “I will stand on that rock. Strike the rock, with me standing on it, and then the water will come out.” And this wouldn’t have been just a little bit of water. How many people were in Israel at this time, after all? It was around 2 million. So this is a great amount of water. Moses is basically creating a mighty rushing river to water all of the people.
Thus we see three different testing occasions. There’s a real need, the people complain, and then the Lord miraculously provides. First the bitter water is turned sweet, then the quail and manna are sent, and then water from the rock at Horeb.
Fighting Against God
So as we see, God is providing for His people, even when they are in the dry and weary land. But the people are continually fighting against God. And by the end of this section in chapter 17, we see that that is the main point. It doesn’t conclude by saying, “and therefore the people rejoiced.” Instead, the story wraps up this way, “He called the name of the place Massah and Meribah because of the contention of Israel because they tempted the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (Ex. 17:7)
That’s the big theme of this passage. These three chapters are not so much about God’s miraculous provision, though that is in there. No, that’s not the main part. The main part is that the people complained, grumbled, and fought against God Himself.
Notice their progression. In chapter 15, the people complain because they cannot drink. But that’s it. That’s understandable. We would all do the same. But in the second section, they are much worse. The whole congregation complained, and they said, “It would have been better to have died in Egypt.” That’s blasphemy. It’s like saying, “It would have been better if you had never saved me.” That’s crazy. But that’s what happens when grief becomes bitterness. Legitimate grievance can turn into great sin.
This is an important message for us today. We live in a day where people are perhaps initially rightly grieved, but they are told to hang on to their grief, to nurture their grief, to water and fertilize their grief so that it grows. Their grief becomes a desire for vengeance.
There was a musical group that I once listened to. It was a long time ago, a different life. Their name was Rage Against the Machine. They were mostly dedicated to promoting Marxist ideology, and in one of their songs they had this powerful line: “Your anger is a gift.” Now, when you are a young angsty 17 year old, let me tell you, that’ll preach. Your anger is a gift. What did they mean by that? They meant that you can use your anger to motivate you to go do big things. But they didn’t mean go build a house or lead a community fundraiser. Really what they meant was to start a social and political revolution. Use your anger to start a revolution.
That sentiment has grown over the years. It’s lost its uniquely political goal, but people love this message of anger. People love to be aggrieved. And perhaps just like with Israel, that grief may have been legitimate initially. But they move way past that. They become angry and bitter, and you know what they end up doing? They fight against all authority. And the Bible says that this means they are fighting against God.
If you hate all authority, really you hate God. This is true because God has put all of the authorities into place. Romans 13 teaches this clearly. “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom. 13:1-2). This is true even of the bad guys. They got into power by God’s sovereign hand.
Israel is resisting Moses. They want to kill him. And Exodus goes on to say, they resisted and contended against Moses and then, “they tempted the Lord” (Ex. 17:7). They tempted the Lord. They presumed upon His grace and goodness, they stopped being thankful, and they fought against Him. They are basically asking God to respond in judgment. Compare this with the New Testament. Paul, meditating on this passage and explaining it in more detail, says that they tested Christ. 1 Cor. 10 says that Israel was baptized in the cloud and the sea, and it says, “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:3-4). Paul goes on to say this, “let us not be idolaters… let us not commit sexual idolatry… let us not tempt Christ” (1 Cor. 10:7, 8, 9).
Israel tempted the Lord. They tempted Christ. Who was providing this miraculous food? Yes, it was God, but it was God working in and through Christ. Israel’s contention against Moses in the wilderness was really their contention against Christ.
Is the Lord among us or not? Is God with us? Is God Immanuel? Israel is asking whether God was really with them and whether He could provide for them. That is what they are saying, and really they are answering that question, “No.”
There are number of things we could add to this. Jesus is the rock. He’s the manna, the food in the wilderness. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says (John 6:35). Jesus was the one who gave this bread, and indeed Jesus was the bread of life. Jesus is the food and the water in the wilderness. If, the church is now Israel and this life prior to the New Heavens and New Earth is a kind of Wilderness, then we need to be fed and watered. And that food and water is Christ. We should also learn from Israel’s example. It’s easy to complain because we are thirsty, and that complaining can become contention against Christ.
The Cure for Contention
Not believing that Christ is enough for us, and letting our grief turn into anger and contention, especially against our authority figures, is a sin against Jesus. It is a temptation of God, saying “I don’t trust You. I don’t believe that You will feed me until I hunger no more. I don’t believe that You will keep water me. I think I’ll go back to the way I used to be. I’ll go back to Egypt, after the way of the flesh.” This is a very human situation. We’ve all been there. We’re probably still going back and forth with this sin, even as mature Christians. What can we do about it?
Now, I could give you a bunch of assignments. Here are a bunch of Puritan books. Go read them. And those are good books by the way, but you shouldn’t read them like a chore. It doesn’t work like that—“say seven Hail Marys and read ten Puritan Paperbacks.” Doing this kind of stuff wouldn’t work. It’s not how the flesh gets better.
In Philippians we see a problem of grumbling. Phil. 2:14 says, “Do all things without grumbling or complaining.” And Phil. 4:6-7 answers this, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving, make your needs known to God.” Put those together and you have your answer. When you are anxious and contentious, give thanks. Remember what God has done for you. Israel should have remembered what God did in their immediate past. This God killed all the gods of Egypt. Israel saw that! This God killed the firstborn of the Egyptians without killing the Hebrew firstborn. This God parted the Red Sea! He stood the waters up like walls. Israel passed through, and then Pharaoh and his army were defeated as God released the waters and they crashed down upon them. Our God did that! Don’t you think He can take care of the water situation?
More than this, let’s learn from the water at the rock. It’s very moving and profound when you put it all together. God says, “I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb” (Ex. 17:6). So, the Lord, and I think this refers to the pillar, stands over the rock, and then He tells Moses, “You shall strike the rock with your rod.” So, the rod of judgment which has been striking all of the false gods of Egypt will now strike the rock. But in order to do that, it will have to pass through the Lord Himself. The rod will strike the rock, the Lord is standing on the rock, and so the rod goes through the cloud striking the Lord in order to produce the water.
This is a picture of the gospel. That rock was Christ. This is Jesus in pre-incarnate form. Jesus says, “Ok, my people are in need. My ministers are in trouble. I am going to do something. I am going to be hit with the rod of judgment, and that will be how I give them the water they need.” This water from the rock is a picture of the Cross. We needed the forgiveness of our sins, and we were at war with anyone who would try to give it to us. Jesus said, “I will go down. I will be convicted of their sins. I will be beaten and killed. I will be crucified so that my people can be saved.”
Strike the rock. Strike the Lamb. This is how our needs are met. This is how God feeds us so that we hunger no more. When we remember the mighty deeds God has done, when we are thinking of the things we should be thankful for, let’s think of Christ. Remember the gospel. When we grumble and complain, we need to compare ourselves to Jesus. He did all things without complaining. He was even falsely accused. Instead of getting angry and using His righteous indignation to lash out, He became a living sacrifice. He eventually laid down His life for us.
That’s what we have to do. When we are confronted with contention, discontentment, anxiety which leads to anger which makes us fight our authorities—our parents, our pastors, our bosses, our president—we need to take ourselves to the cross. We need to crucify our sins, our anger and our anxiety, and we need to entrust our present need to God.
Children, it is hard to be little. You can’t do everything you want to do. You can’t even explain yourself, and that’s frustrating. You will get angry when this happens. Here’s what I want you to do. When you are angry because you are frustrated, I want you to talk to God. I want you to tell Him why you are angry and frustrated, and I want you to ask Him to take your anger and frustration to Himself. He will take it away that way.
Parents, when you are angry and frustrated. When you can’t explain what you are feeling, and it just sort of comes out, I want you to talk to God. Tell Him why you are angry and frustrated, and ask Him to take your anxieties onto Himself. I want you to think about what Jesus did. We need to be more and more like Him.
If this message had nothing else to it, it would be incomplete. If nothing ever got fixed in life, then this would indeed be frustrating. It would be false hope if nothing ever got better. But the good news is that God has promised that He will forgive us our sins and He will change us. He will work in our lives to make us more like Christ. And He will bless us, maybe not always the same way or the way we’d like to see it, but He will bless us. And as we struggle and suffer, we will be enriched. And we know that eventually, at the end of all history, He will put to right every wrong. He will return as a just judge, and Jesus will not be ripped off. Nobody’s “getting away with” anything. You don’t have to square all of your troubles now because you know Jesus will. And He already has taken care of you biggest needs now, at the Cross.
So, in conclusion, we see from these three different cases of grumbling and complaining a picture of a common sin that is with the people of God, even today. It should serve as a great warning. If our anger does always get the best of us—if, time and time again, we are lashing out against God—we should rightly be afraid of what that means. That might be something we need to take to heart. We need to get right with God. Maybe we are those hardened Israelites. But if we are struggling legitimately, if we are trying to find out how to go forward in the wilderness, then we have our answer. We must trust God, seeing His grace and how it provides for us.
We need to let go of our anxiety and our complaining. We need to do this by prayer and thanksgiving, always seeing where Jesus has gone before us. We need to see where Jesus has been struck by the rod of our burdens. And we need to see how He has provided the water for our souls.
Let us pray.