Now if you would please take a copy of the Holy Scriptures in your hands and turn with me to the book of Exodus chapter 17. If you are using one of our church Bibles you will find that on page 59. We have been working our way through the book of Exodus and after a short break we’re back now in chapter 17. Before we read it together, would you bow your heads with me as we go to God and ask Him to help us to understand and embrace the message of His Word? Let’s pray together.
O Lord, we pray now that Your Word would chase away the fog of distraction, the preoccupations that turn our gaze every which way but toward You. We pray that Your Word would sound an alarm in our hearts, that it would direct our steps, that it would rebuke our wayward wandering, and that Your Word would bring us home, back, like prodigals perhaps, in repentance and in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ, the Rock of Ages who was cleft for us. For we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Exodus chapter 17. This is the very Word of Almighty God:
“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. 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?’ 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 kills us and our children and our livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried to the LORD, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ 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. 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. And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the LORD by saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.
Internal Threats to the Church
The church of Jesus Christ in every age faces two types of threats. There are external threats - threats from an opposing world that rejects the Gospel message. And there are internal threats - from the defections and the unbelief and the spiritual failures of the people of God. In Exodus chapter 17 we see both. Next Lord’s Day Morning, God willing, we’ll look at some of the external threats in verses 8 to 16. But today in the first half of the chapter we’re thinking about those internal threats, those inner problems and difficulties and temptations to unfaithfulness that beset the people of God as they made their way through the wilderness and continue often to beset the church in these days. And the order, I think, is important that we consider those internal threats first of all before thinking about, dealing with, and responding to the opposition of the world. We must think about the threats from within the church first because 1 Peter chapter 4 and verse 17, “Judgment begins with the household of God.” It is a real temptation, I think for the church in these days of moral collapse and spiritual decline in the world around us, to see our challenge as a church, primarily even entirely in terms of our response to the ills of society so we become self-styled culture warriors and the moral policemen of the age. And if we’re not careful, we will miss the first danger, not out there in the world but in here in the church, in our own hearts and in our own lives.
So what I want to do as we look at the passage together, verses 1 to 7, is simply to examine the contours of the internal threat to the spiritual welfare of the church in this passage and then see how the Lord responds to it. And as you examine these opening seven verses you will see that the surface, you can move from the surface symptoms all the way down to deep heart problems in three steps, three moves.
I. Misdirected Anger
Move number one - the people of God find themselves in the grip of misdirected anger. Misdirected anger. That’s the surface symptom that we are confronted with, the presenting symptom of a deeper set of spiritual maladies that indicates to us there is a real problem in the life of the people of God. You see it in those opening four verses, don’t you? Misdirected anger. The people have been moving from bondage in Egypt now through the wilderness toward the Promised Land and we have seen them so far, twice before, complaining and grumbling to Moses about the inadequate provision of food and drink made for them along the way. So back in chapter 15:22-27 when they come to the oasis in Marah, they find undrinkably bitter water and they begin to complain. And the Lord who is rich in mercy turns the bitter water sweet by His grace. Then in chapter 16 they begin to complain again. This time there’s not enough food to eat and so God who is infinitely patient with His grumbling, rebellious people responds not in judgment but supplies bread from heaven, miraculous manna every morning and quail every evening. “And those who gathered much did not have too much, and those who gathered little had enough.”
The Grumbling of the Mob
And now here as they arrive at Rephidim there is no water for them. Some commentators speculate the Israelites are actually being kept away from the oasis waters at Rephidim by the Amalekites who will begin to trouble them in the second half of the chapter. Another possibility is simply that the waters have dried up for water reason. But no matter the cause, after a long wilderness journey moving by stages through the desert they have arrived at their next stop, at the oasis at Rephidim, looking for water, parched and dusty and dry and in need. And they are sorely disappointed. And so, verse 2, they quarrel with Moses. “Give us water to drink!” That word, “quarrel,” is important. It indicates to us that more is going on here than their usual grumbling and complaining. It is a word that was used in legal contexts to articulate a grievance or a problem that might eventuate in a lawsuit if it is not resolved. So the people have been complaining before but now they have upped the ante significantly. Now they are filing suit, as it were. They are seeking, we might say, to impeach Moses. And when Moses pushes back in verse 2, notice their answer, verse 3. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Notice the first personal plural pronouns there. Why did you bring “us” up, kill us, our children, our livestock? Every English translation handles the text that way. It’s actually a mistranslation because they’re not first personal plurals; they’re actually first personal singular which cues us into the nature of the complaint. This is not a considered, carefully arrived at group decision after, you know, due process and parliamentary procedure. “There was a debate. This is now our joint decision. This is what we’re bringing to Moses.” Not at all. This is the preoccupation of a mob of individuals motivated by self-interest. What they really say is, “You brought me up to kill me, my children, my livestock!” When things get hard, each one of them, all they can think about is himself. All each one can think about is himself.
Fighting With Moses, Angry at God
And when Moses turns to God in verse 4 for help, he tells us just how dangerous this situation has become. He says, “They’re ready to stone me!” The construction he uses tells us this is impending. This is immediate. There’s a clear and present danger; it’s about to happen. It is an ugly scene. They are furious with Moses. But as verse 2 makes clear as Moses responds to their quarrels, actually their real complaint ought not to be brought against Moses at all. It is misdirected anger. It is the Lord with whom they have a real quarrel. The Lord is the one against whom they must lodge their complaints and press their suit. He is the one, after all, who brought them out of Egypt and into the wilderness. Now no doubt their dissatisfaction seemed much more acceptable and much less shocking to the Israelites by bringing is against Moses rather than against their God, but Moses can see right through them. For all their rage at him, their real difficulty is God-ward. Misdirected anger.
And as we look into the mirror of Scripture, it may be that a similar pattern in our own lives is also being exposed. Could it be that for some of you here this morning, your temper and your irrational outbursts at the people around you have less to do with their failures and much more to do with your inability to trust God when things get hard? To submit to His disciplinary hand in the stresses and pressures and details of your life? Could your snapping and backbiting at the people you love around you really be expressive of a deeper, God-ward disease? Misdirected anger.
II. Unreasoned Unbelief
And then step two. Notice what’s behind their misdirected anger. Moses tells us about it in verse 7, doesn’t he? “They tested the Lord,” Moses said, “by saying” - this is a stunning question that they would even ask; how could they ask it? “Is the Lord among us or not?” Think about what they’re asking. They had witnessed the ten plagues of divine and supernatural judgment on Egypt, they had been preserved as the angel of death passed through the land that first Passover and the Lord brought them out of bondage with a mighty hand. As He parted the Sea, led them through safely on dry land, and then they turned to watch as the wrath of God obliterated their enemies before their eyes. When they complained about the bitter water, the Lord miraculously turned the bitter water sweet for them. That very morning before they arrived at Rephidim they had gathered the miraculous manna and filled their bellies. And here they are, with a pillar of cloud and fire casting its shadow and illuminating their steps, right in front of them the very presence of God visibly in their midst, and still they ask! All of that forgotten! “Is the Lord among us or not?” It’s a stunning question.
The Arrogance of Doubt
It is, however, not at all uncommon in the life of a child of God. It is a peculiar pattern in the hearts of Christians who struggle with assurance who wonder if God is really with them, that they reason so very poorly when it comes to spiritual things. Here’s how it goes: “My needs trump all other arguments. The only thing that will do to demonstrate to me that God is with me right now is that He meets my need in precisely the manner in which I require Him to do. All His past kindnesses to me no longer matter. All the ways He’s answered my cries and never yet once showed Himself to be unfaithful must be ruled out as irrelevant. He must do what I deem I most need and He must do it on my terms according to my timetable or I will conclude He’s not with me at all.” What stunning irrational arrogance so often laces our doubts. Right? It should shame us, brothers and sisters. As we struggle to trust God in whatever the new crisis happens to be, it should shame us that we so easily forget His path faithfulness to us in every previous crisis before now. Has He ever failed you? Has He ever failed to keep His promises? If only Israel had looked up and remembered the pillar of cloud and fire and seen that the Lord is with them. All we need do is look up and look to Christ and remember His words. “I will never leave you or forsake you. I am with you always, to the end of the age.” All we need do is look back and see how again and again and again in crisis and trial the Lord has proven Himself faithful, patient, kind, to find reasons to bolster our faith and to fight off unbelief.
Psalm 95 will remember the rebellion and the unbelief of the people here at Massah and Meribah as Moses will later rename the place. And later again, the book of Hebrews chapter 3 meditates on this part of Psalm 95 and applies it to us today with a warning. So Hebrews 3 is showing us what to do with this part of Exodus 17. It gives us a warning. May God give us ears to hear that warning. Here it is. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Misdirected anger behind which lies unreasoned unbelief.
III. Misconstrued Relationship to God
And then there’s a third step, right at the core; the deepest layer. The issue in their lives that gave rise to this whole problem in the first place - misdirected anger, unreasoned unbelief - and behind it all a misconstrued relationship with God. They have misunderstood their relationship to God. Look at verses 1 and 2 again. “All the congregation of the people of Israel move on from the wilderness of sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord.” The Lord is regulating their steps. They are moving through the wilderness in strict conformity to the commandment of the law of God communicated to them through Moses, His prophet. His Word guides their steps. And yet when they couldn’t get water, unbelief and anger boil to the surface. Almost immediately they are seeking to obey the letter of the commandment but they do not seem to trust the promises so that they’re going where God directs them but once they get there they no longer believe that God will provide for them. They’re not living clinging to the knowledge that God will take care of His people, that their times are in His hands. Actually they’ve begun to construct their relationship to God according to a principle only of obedience to the law, to the commandments of God, and not first on dependence on the promises of God and the provision of the grace of God. And so the result is, they go to pieces when things get difficult. They have no way to integrate trials into their system so unbelief and anger take over.
Kept By His Grace, Not Their Works
No one can ever face life’s crises in peace armed only with their own obedience to the commandments of God. It can’t be done. All duty without hope, all obligation without expectation of provision - that’s no way to live the Christian life. It is a sure and certain path to disillusionment and despair. The way of God is the way of faith in the promises of His constant care and gracious provision. “My grace,” He says to us, “is sufficient for you.” “My God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” “His mercy is new every morning; great is his faithfulness.” Those are the promises of God and the Christian life is to be lived resting on them, depending on them, clinging to them so that we obey the precepts that God gives to us but we always obey them clinging to the promises that God makes to us. We keep the commands His gives but we keep them resting on God’s own commitment to our welfare, supplying our need. We obey depending on grace so that when we find ourselves plunged into the crisis we know that God is true and on Him we can rely. Resting on your own attempt to obey is like walking over a thin layer of ice. It is not safe and you will fall through. You need to know you are kept and held secure not by virtue of your careful adherence to His law; you are kept and held secure by virtue of His unfailing, unshakable grace. And because of His grace you give yourself to carefully keep His law. And the Israelites here have inverted the order entirely. And no wonder then that unbelief and doubt and anxiety and anger begin to erupt in their lives.
Drinking From the Rock
So there’s the diagnosis. The presenting symptoms - misdirected anger. The underlying cause - unreasoned unbelief. And at the root of the problem - a misconstrued relationship with God. But before we close, do let’s notice how God answers and responds. Verses 5 and 6 He tells Moses to gather the elders together, take the staff with which he struck the Nile back in Egypt in his hand, and parade in front of the grumbling, complaining congregation out into the wilderness to the rock of Horeb. Remember now, that staff, that was the instrument of divine judgment. It was an ominous moment. One pictures the Israelites suddenly silenced wondering, “Will the staff that smote the Egyptians now smite Israel? Is he taking the elders away, the representatives of the congregation away to do judgment upon them?” That’s what our sin deserves, after all. But in His wrath here God remembers mercy and so verse 6, as Moses lifts up the staff, he brings it down on the rock and it is broken in two and from it flows a spring of water and there He supplies the need of the people. God, we are told, is said to stand before Moses upon the rock. It’s an unusual construction typically in the ancient near eastern culture here - the subordinate stands before the superior. But here is God the Lord standing before Moses as though He were the servant and Moses the master and the rod of judgment does not destroy the unbelieving, wicked, sinful people but instead supplies mercy and gives them grace.
It’s a picture of the Gospel, isn’t it? It’s a picture the apostle Paul can’t resist connecting to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1 Corinthians chapter 10 verses 3 and 4. “All ate the same spiritual food,” he says of the Israelites in the wilderness, “all drank the same drink for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” The rock was Christ. He was smitten and afflicted and from Him flows living water to all who believe. Not judgment on Israel but grace from the broken rock. Not judgment on our sin. The Lord responds to us, if we are His children, in mercy in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is, after all, why we come to the Lord’s Table, isn’t it? Here are the emblems of the grace of God for sinners in the Lord Jesus Christ - the one who is the true Bread from heaven from whom flow living waters to quench the thirst of all who believe. To drink the waters that He shall give means never to thirst again - John chapter 4. Here, Jesus Himself presides offering you satisfaction and a quenching of your deepest thirst by Himself, with Himself. He gives Himself to you.
And so as we come to the Lord’s Table, brothers and sisters let us come repenting, acknowledging that we have sometimes constructed our relationship to God on the basis of our obedience, our performance, not on the basis of His grace. And it has resulted, as we have found ourselves in the midst of pressure and crisis and trials not in calm confidence in His provision but in misdirected anger and in unnecessary hostility to the people that we love around us. And behind that, in unreasoned unbelief, we have forgotten his past faithfulness. Let us come to the Table mourning for our sin, repenting. But as we come, remember who stands here to meet you - one who does not lift up the rod to smite and judge you but one who was Himself smitten and afflicted who poured Himself out to give you life in whom there is abundance of pardon and plentiful mercy. So we come not simply mourning and grieving, we come to Christ at the Table to find grace and pardon and satisfaction for our souls.
Let us pray together.
Our Father, we thank You for Your holy Word and we pray now as we come to Your Table that You would freshly break our hearts and help us to come truly repenting, but help us also to fill our eyes with the Lord Jesus Christ, the Rock of Ages cleft for us from whom flows mercy and grace and pardon for all who believe. And as we eat the bread and drink the cup, grant that we may feed by faith on our precious Savior. For we ask it in His name, amen.
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